What Did This Puppy Teach US?

The launch of the second Underdog competition had a few of us at Simply Hops reflecting on how the first year had gone. We really enjoyed it, and we we’re really pleased with the response we had but was it worth repeating? Did it support the brewing industry as we intended? As we looked over all of the material we produced we realised that the competition had started as one thing and kind of mutated in to something subtly different. The subtle difference though, is a pretty important one.

When we started Underdog our primary goal was to highlight an issue in the brewing industry that we could see only getting worse without a step-change in brewers hop habits. It was obvious that certain hop varieties allowed brewers to make some really good beer, that was loved by the beer drinkers and therefore sold well. These beers often quickly became part of the breweries’ core range as they kept the readies rolling in. As a result, more and more frequently we would be contacted by brewers that were trying to secure hop varieties that were essential to their business but were also in very short supply. More needed to be made of the varieties that were more readily available if the industry was to continue to grow securely. At least until the supply caught up.

Now don’t get us wrong. We’re not arrogant enough to think that our one little competition would change the world. Despite stereotypes, it turns out many of the breweries we work with are run by savagely astute business people. For us though anything we could do to encourage more experimentation with a wider range of hop varieties could only help.

So move forward one year and there are still issues around the supply of some varieties although it is looking like, with a potentially good harvest, many of the positions on the notorious hop varieties may be slightly less critical. So do we need to run underdog again? Absolutely, but it has less to do with hop usage and more to do with the brewers just being well up for a proper challenge!

The Feedback we got from Ben Howe, the wunderkind behind last year’s winning beer “Straight Outta Boston” from Danish brewery Ebeltoft Gårdbryggeri seems to highlight this. For him it was all about the challenge to his understanding of the hops and his ability as a brewer to manipulate the myriad of variables to get what he wanted. (He’s American so excuse the spelling ;-))

“I honestly found the Underdog IPA competition to be a unique and thought provoking challenge. While I don't consider the hoppy beers I like to make to be overly dependent on hard to get "sexy" hops, a least one or two of those varieties makes its way into most every IPA or pale ale I brew. I really enjoyed the idea of pushing myself to utilize less easy to use hops through specific brewing techniques to create the flavor profile I had in mind. What we decided to do was to combine the Target hops with some very pungent and dank older school American hops (Chinook and Columbus) the way I would use brighter more fruit forward tropical varieties. The challenge really taught me how to balance several big, bold, and seemingly blunt hop varieties and to harness the really pleasant flavors that are often hidden under their intensity. In hindsight, I feel this contest is the type of challenge we need to see more of in U.S. and world craft brewing. Sometimes it feels like anyone with a couple boxes of Citra or Galaxy can put together a very flavorful IPA that pleases the masses. Being forced to work with less forgiving ingredients with the goal of creating the same bold and delicious character has certainly improved my general understanding of how flavors work together and better ways to utilize the tools that I'm given.

As we toured “Straight Outta Boston” this year at events across Europe many of the brewers and beer fans we spoke to were amazed at the flavours achieved by Ben. Brewers producing some of Europe’s best known craft beers were fascinated at what a beer using mostly Target could achieve. So yes. we are repeating underdog again this year. It’s still really important to us to encourage experimentation with hop varieties that will lead to more unique beer being created.  Where the subtle difference comes in is that we’re going to be paying as much attention to the brewer as we are to the beer. Can we unearth another individual or brewing team who like Ben, brew intuitively as well as skilfully? Somebody who can be held aloft as an ambassador of creative brewing.