Grow it and they shall come

From trends and technique, to hop politics and flavour profiles, we talk to The Garden Brewery’s managing director, Tom O’Hara about the rapidly changing landscape shared by brewers, growers, and suppliers.


I can only advise that if you ever run into Tom O’Hara down the pub or in a bar, you buy the man a beer and do your best to get him chatting. As managing director of The Garden Brewery, in Zagreb, he has his finger on the pulse of brewery operations, but more than that, he has a gripping, lyrical way of talking about hops. He describes them as complicated and sometimes fallible entities, with personalities and opinions, rather than feats of scientific and agricultural engineering. Of course, Tom is well acquainted with the science, but what we end up talking about more than that is the politics of hop growing, and the economy of their usage. 

This all stems from conversation about the function and process of making single-hopped beers. Tom says The Garden ran a single-hop series back in 2018, and that the team found it a useful way to explore the capabilities of various hops, and experiment with how much of each they could pack into a single beer. Back then, Tom says drinkers would actively ask, not about a beer’s haze and flavour, but its “grams [of hops used] per litre [of beer]”. 

This, of course, was an industry-wide trend, and demand for heavy hopping drove the production of those kinds of beer. However, the world has moved on, and Tom finds it bizarre to recall that way of working, and doesn’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing that craft beer has matured. 

“For example, when Sabro first came out, people were using loads of Sabro, and everyone’s beers tasted like coconut for about two years, but it was just way too much” says Tom. “Some of the nicest single-hop Sabro beers I’ve tried are hopped with four grams per litre, whereas before, people were using ten or eleven, and you just don’t need it when the hop is giving so much bang for its buck.” 

In case you missed it, bang for buck is a hot topic in the craft beer world right now, with soaring grain and energy costs, coupled with inflation, putting breweries out of business almost on a weekly basis. With hops having always been the most expensive ingredient in beer, brewers are reevaluating their use of this key ingredient, and aiming for quality over quantity. 

The Garden’s approach to hopping has changed over the last few years.For one, it’s working smarter when it comes to layering hops, and has found it can lower its usage by up to 30% in places, just by playing to a hop’s strength, and being selective with how it combines varieties to accentuate certain flavours. 

“Take Azacca for example,” Tom says. “It covers all your bases. It's got mango, tangerine and citrus flavours, but it’s also tangy and subtle, and so plays really nicely with others. It gives Mosaic a tropical oomph, and Citra a bit more of a backbone.”

However, approaching hops with a technical mindset and more fine-tuned focus, naturally breeds a curiosity as to what supporting players like Azacca can do on their own. When it comes to brewing single-hop beers, Tom says that “dual purpose is usually a good starting point,” by which he means that a hop can be used for both bittering and aroma. From there, he says it’s important that the beer’s grain bill brings out the best of the hop’s characteristics, and doesn’t overpower or distract from its subtler flavours. 

For example, in a 3.4% pale ale using just Azacca, he’d want to keep the malt bill light and simple. “With Azacca being quite delicate, if you want to hear it sing in a low-ABV beer, it’s probably best to give it a small stage”, he says. Brewing with alcohol is like cooking with fat, meaning the more alcoholic a beer, the more capacity it has to carry flavour, and the less alcoholic a beer, the more technical the brewer has to be in their approach to flavour and aroma.

In my eyes, this is what makes single-hop beers brilliant, they carry the signature of the brewery by showcasing what the team values in a beer, what technical abilities they have under their belt, and how they interpret the strengths and weaknesses of a given hop variety. With this more measured and considered approach to hopping signalling to many that our industry is maturing, I ask Tom if he thinks the contemporary needs of breweries might inform what characteristics appear in future generations of hops. 

However, his answer only highlights how complicated hop development is, and how the needs of brewer, grower, and supplier always exist in relation to one another. Tom says the first time he visited hop development facilities in Yakima Valley, in 2019, the main criteria for a hop’s success was whether or not its picking window clashed with that of the industry’s best-selling hop, Citra. 

“You had some really nice hops that weren’t getting any uptake, and no one was willing to grow to a real commercial extent, because from the farmer’s perspective, why would they grow something new, when they could be growing Citra? Ideally they want varieties that mature and can be picked three weeks before Citra,” he says.

When Tom returned to Yakima after COVID — just a handful of years later — the focus of development programmes had drastically changed, with drought resistance being the new bar that developmental varieties needed to clear in order to have a shot at meaningful growth. He says that “if Citra was grown today as an HBC [experimental] variety, it probably wouldn’t make it past the initial trial process because it's not drought resistant enough to become established”. 

But of course, that’s just considering the HBC programme, the development programme run by the world’s two biggest hop suppliers, Yakima Chief and BarthHaas. “These two hop conglomerates basically run this programme together, and then sort out between themselves who has proprietary rights,” says Tom. “On one hand they’re fighting for market domination, but on the other, they’re working together”.

It’s for this reason that Tom — who, for the record, would be the first to say he admires and respects the work of the HBC programme — was very excited by the emergence of Strata, the first hop to experience major commercial success, without being a product of the HBC programme. 

“Strata probably wouldn't have survived the HBC growth cycles because of the way it behaves and reacts, even though it’s delicious and works a lot like Citra in the sense that if you put it in a beer, it will work with whatever other flavours are featuring. It is drought resistant, but it doesn’t have a fantastic picking window and so wouldn’t have made it if it had been grown in Yakima. Instead it came from the Indie Hops Breeding Program at Oregon State University in 2009, but that was one of the first big varieties to come out and actually make a splash, without being a part of the two big hop companies.”

That, in so many ways, is the beauty of our industry; its curiosity, innovation and openness means the underdog always has a fighting chance, and no one can say with certainty that they know from where the next big leap forward will come. We just have to be ready to recognise it when it does.

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