This Is The Beer Of The Future

This Is The Beer Of The Future

After a long day of futuristic work and hydroponic farming in the Home of the Future, we’re betting that one thing will stay exactly the same as it is today: you’ll want to crack open a cold one. But what would that cold one look like? Probably something like this magical brew from Sixpoint.

This month, Gizmodo Australia will be hopping in our domestic DeLorean to bring you what the future will have in store for the way we live. The Home Of The Future series focuses on smart tech for your home life and beyond. We’ve got a great month planned full of news, reviews and features.
Welcome to the future.

We’re pretty excited about this limited edition, exclusive, experimental beer, named Hop Tech 431.

Drinking Experimental Hops in the Sixpoint Beer of the Future

Hop Tech 431

But first, why the name? It’s not a bungled reference to Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 or an obscure allusion to an HTTP error code, and although 431 is apparently “an Eisenstein prime with no imaginary part” (whatever that means), that’s not why we and Sixpoint chose Hop Tech 431 as the name for our Beer of the Future.

Instead, the answer is both more straightforward and more mysterious. Hop Tech 431 is named after the lone, experimental hop variety it is being brewed from: HBC 431. And the story behind HBC 431 is utterly fascinating.

The Future of Flavour

First, the basics. Hops — or more specifically, the flowering cones of female hop bines — are one of the key ingredients in brewing. There are dozens of different commercial varieties available, and each contributes a slightly different degree of bitterness, as well as a unique set of aroma molecules, to shape the flavour of the finished beer.

Drinking Experimental Hops in the Sixpoint Beer of the Future

Hop cones; photo courtesy John I. Haas

Brewers often blend up to ten hop varieties into a single beer to get the flavour they’re looking for. Anheuser-Busch, for example, is known to rely on traditional German varieties, including Hallertau Mittelfrueh and Spalt Select, to make Bud. Among craft brewers, Aaron Ekroth, Sixpoint’s Creative Director, told us, “Citra and Mosaic have been the hottest hop varieties of the past couple of years” — both of which are characterised by the intense citrus and tropical fruit aromas that are so popular in American IPAs right now.

But that citrus-heavy trend won’t last forever. Among the most innovative craft brewers in America, the search is already on for the next big thing in hops. The tasting notes from the sensory panel that evaluated this new variety, hop HBC 431, were filled with descriptors like “tobacco,” “fresh-cut lumber,” and even “mixed fruit cup” — and, these, says Ekroth, are what Sixpoint sees as the IPA flavours of the future.

Drinking Experimental Hops in the Sixpoint Beer of the Future

“We’re seeing an evolution in flavour in the next few years — a step away from super hoppy citrus and pine aromas into something that’s still bold, but more herbal and earthy,” added Heather McReynolds, the Sixpoint brewer who designed Hop Tech 431’s recipe. And HBC 431 offers a sneak preview of this new-flavored future.

A 1-in-20,000 Hop

To find out how HBC 431 was prototyped, I called Gene Probasco, the hop breeder at Sixpoint’s suppliers, John I. Haas in Yakima, Washington. Probasco has been breeding hops for 30 years (when he got started, his was the only private hop-breeding program in the United States), and he is also the man behind the blockbuster Citra variety, which was released commercially in 2008.

Drinking Experimental Hops in the Sixpoint Beer of the Future

Gene Probasco surveys his experimental hops; photo by Aaron Ekroth/Sixpoint

John I. Haas’s advanced experimental breeding program churns out roughly 20,000 new seedlings a year — fewer than one of which will end up being commercially released. HBC 431 was just one of those anonymous seedlings a decade ago, Probasco told me. Its first success came when it showed resistance to powdery mildew (a nasty disease threatening hop growers in the Northwest) during its first year in the greenhouse. That meant HBC 431 was worth sowing outside, on the trellis.

The next test came in year 4, when HBC 431 and its peers produced their first “cones,” or flowers — the part of the hop that brewers use. This is the point where most seedlings fail to make the grade — and, not to be shallow, but the decision is entirely based on their appearance.

“That’s right,” Probasco explained. “The first evaluation is, basically, what does it look like?”

Drinking Experimental Hops in the Sixpoint Beer of the Future

Gene Probasco and Shane Welch in the experimental hop plot; photo by Aaron Ekroth/Sixpoint

Fortunately, HBC 431 is a stunner. Probasco read back through his notes: “It’s grows straight up and down, so it’s not brushy or bushy. It’s got a lot of cones — all you see is cones. They’re small and they’re heavy and they’re tight.” All of these are sure signs that HBC 431 would be easy to harvest and would produce a good yield, so Probasco and his colleagues made the decision to go from one plant to 30, and grow them out for another 2 years in an expanded plot.

It wasn’t until then, 6 years after HBC 431’s parents came together to make her, that she was first introduced to some brewers.

Probasco looked back through his files to find the notes from Sixpoint’s visit: Shane Welch (one of Sixpoint’s founders) and Aaron Ekroth had apparently “loved HBC 431’s bold aroma.”

Drinking Experimental Hops in the Sixpoint Beer of the Future

Shane Welch looks at hops in the John I. Haas experimental plot; photo by Aaron Ekroth/Sixpoint

Encouraged by the brewers’ interest, Probasco and his team planted out 3 entire acres with HBC 431 — and it’s the yield from that experimental plot that Sixpoint are using to brew Hop Tech 431 with right now.

The Naming of the Hop

Based on all the early buzz about HBC 431, Probasco is expanding production to 12 acres this year. Nonetheless, he told me that experimental hop 431 is still at least a couple of years away, and perhaps as many as three or four, from becoming a named, commercial variety:

Once we get to the point where there’s enough customers and enough volume, then we say, OK, we’ve got to give it a name. There might be one ahead of it — 291 [an earlier cross] is getting pretty popular too. Either one of them could be the next one.

Probasco and his team had just finished naming their most recent release — Equinox™, or the hop formerly known as HBC 366 — and he told me that they don’t have anything in mind for 431 yet, so suggestions are welcome.

In the case of 336, Probasco explained that “The variety itself has quite a yellow foliage in the early summer, so we were thinking about names that had to do with yellow, and that led us to sunshine and the sun, and from there someone suggested Equinox.”

“Of Unknown Ancestry”: The Mystery of 431

As if making it as a hot new experimental hop variety wasn’t achievement enough, HBC 431 has another trick up its sleeve: No one knows exactly where it comes from.

“It’s pretty much of a mystery,” agreed Probasco. “Our sales guy described it as a slutty hop,” laughed Sixpoint’s Heather McReynolds. To make a long story short, 431’s mother is a female of unknown ancestry, who was fertilised by what breeders call “open pollination” (i.e. from random pollen floating in the air), meaning that 431’s father is a mystery, too.

Drinking Experimental Hops in the Sixpoint Beer of the Future

Hop cones; photo courtesy John I. Haas

“It’s kind of unusual for anything really good to come out with so much unknown about it,” Probasco admitted, laughing. “We’re normally very focused on our crosses: we know who the male is, we know who the female is, and we have reasons for bringing those two together because of certain characteristics. But 431 just happened, unplanned.”

That serendipity is all part of 431’s futuristic charm for McReynolds. As we crumbled the emerald green pellets in our hands and inhaled 431’s heady aroma, she told us that she was excited to use HBC 431 to brew the beer of the future, because, like the future itself, “I’m just curious to see how it turns out, more than anything else.”

Drinking Experimental Hops in the Sixpoint Beer of the Future
Drinking Experimental Hops in the Sixpoint Beer of the Future

Brewing The Brew Of The Future

Since we couldn’t get a robot to make this amazing ale for us, we brewed it the old-school way — by hand — on Sixpoint’s 15-barrel system in Red Hook, Brooklyn.

We joined brewers Danny Bruckert and Keir Hamilton to take our turn with the mash paddle (which subsequently broke, in a — we claim — entirely unrelated incident).

How We Brewed the Beer of the Future

The Mash-In: A Full Upper Body Workout

Brewing starts with adding malted grains to hot water, a bit like making oatmeal but with sprouted, dried barley. We threw in a bunch of rice hulls to the mix, to add surface area and provide filtration, and then stirred like crazy.

This would actually make a good candidate for workout of the future, because moving 1,000 lbs of hot water and grains around combines the benefits of hot yoga with a killer upper-body conditioning session.

How We Brewed the Beer of the Future

Hamilton, a Scot who recently joined Sixpoint from a distillery, favoured more of a twist action, while Bruckert proudly claimed to be “a back and forth kind of guy.” I had zero technique and not much in the way of stamina, either, as I pushed and pulled the wooden paddle, chasing “doughballs” — clumps of dry grains — through the porridge-like gloop.

An inadequately stirred mash risks scorching the enzymes, too, so it was with relief that we handed the paddle back to the pros, letting them flex their “brewer’s triceps” while we inhaled the clouds of deliciously biscuity steam coming off the mash tun. Meanwhile, the enzymes in the grains, activated by the heat and water, started converting the starches into fermentable sugar.

How We Brewed the Beer of the Future

The Boil: Sugar Water, Meet Hops

The mashing process took about an hour, and then the sweet water, known as wort, was separated off from the spent grains, which will end up as animal food on regional farms (though a recent ruling from the FDA may have put a damper on that practice).

How We Brewed the Beer of the Future

The next step was the boil: the wort was piped into a giant kettle and kept at a rolling boil for another hour or so. Danny Bruckert maintained a close eye on the clock while allowing us to tip in carefully measured bucketfuls of our one and only hop — Heather McReynold’s recipe.

The hops themselves come in pellet-form, of what looks like compressed grass clippings. As soon as they hit the hot water, they send out a whoosh of green, hoppy aroma, making me thirsty for a pint even though it was well before noon.

At the end, Bruckert explained, there’s a whirlpool built into the kettle, which spins to pull all the proteins and solids — “the stuff that makes it look like egg-drop soup” — into a green cone in the middle, allowing the clear, hopped wort to be pumped out and cooled off.

80% of Brewing is Cleaning…

At this point, we left Hop Tech 431 on its way into the fermenter, where yeast is added to feast on the sugars, producing alcohol and carbon dioxide. Our work was done, but the brewers still had a big clean up job ahead.

How We Brewed the Beer of the Future

In Red Hook, Sixpoint’s brewers have two brew-days a week, making two 15-gallon batches back-to-back on each. “The rest of the time,” complained Danny Bruckert, albeit with a grin on his face, “we’re glorified janitors, hosing down equipment, scrubbing tanks, and cellaring beer.”

For the next two weeks, the Sixpoint team checked in on Hop Tech 431 daily as it conditioned, tasting it for off flavours, and measuring the gravity to see how much of the sugar had been consumed.

But Then You Get to Drink Beer!

When we came back to sample the final product, sixteen days after our mash-tun work-out, there was a palpable tension in the air. None of the brewers had worked with this experimental hop before, and there wasn’t time to make another batch if this one turned out to taste disgusting — or simply just meh.

How We Brewed the Beer of the Future

Even the ever-cheerful Danny Bruckert looked a tiny bit apprehensive as he tapped the cask and pulled a pint of Hop Tech 431 for each of us. We clinked glasses, said cheers, sniffed (an important beer geek first step, to check out the aromas), sipped… and smiled.

How We Brewed the Beer of the Future
How We Brewed the Beer of the Future

In fact, it was so good — refreshing and approachable but with a lovely full body and nuanced fruity, earthy flavour — that before I had finished my first glass, I was considering starting a petition to add Hop Tech 431 to Sixpoint’s permanent line-up.

If this is the beer of the future, then getting older may not be such a bad thing, after all!