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Hop Selection with Ben Smith

Every autumn, Surly Head Brewer Ben Smith heads to Yakima, Washington for hop selection. There are a few good reasons for this:

  1. That’s where the hops are.
  2. Ensuring the quality of the hops we use to make most of the beers in Surly’s portfolio.
  3. Checking out new, experimental hops that can be used for future Surly projects.

Here’s his report from the 2023 hop harvest:

On why we hand select the hops, even when we know what we need:

“Our hops from the Pacific Northwest account for roughly 90 percent of our yearly supply, so it’s critical that we get it right. Brewers don’t often have the luxury of vintage. Furious needs to taste like Furious. Axe Man needs to taste like Axe Man. We need to make sure this year’s hops exhibit the same characteristics as previous iterations to do so. Climate, drought, and other weather events can impact the harvest. In other words, the things that make hops hoppy aren’t uniform year-over-year.”

How Surly accounts for these changes:

“There are varying levels of analytics available for things like hop oil content and Alpha acids, depending on the supplier, but the most important one is still your nose. The aromatics don’t lie.”

What do you look for in hops that are outside the core ones used for our flagship beers?

“We always spend as much time as possible out in the fields with the hop breeders and farmers. New hop varietals can take 10-15 years to get from the lab to the market. The farmers are looking for something they can take to market that also has yield sustainability, resistance to pests and viral infections, we’re looking for something that’ll make a quality beer. Ideally, I can see something in the field this year that we can brew with in the next 1-3 years.”

Did anything pique your curiosity this harvest season?

“There was an HBC (Hop Breeding Company) hop that had a very noticeable cucumber/mint note, would love to use it for a gin-and-tonic-influenced beer someday.”

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