Good Beer Hunting

An Enigma from Another Galaxy — How Oskar Blues and Trillium Found Answers in Australia


They are two vastly different breweries, separated by size, approach, style, and geography. They make—amongst two substantial and varied lineups—two very different hoppy beers. One is a slightly older-school American IPA in execution: fragrant, bitter, and clean. The other’s newer, hazy and juicy in the New England style. But the IPAs from Oskar Blues and Trillium Brewing have one strong link. The hops at the forefront come from the same country, the same supplier, possibly even the same farm—and that's all on the other side of the world.

When Colorado’s Oskar Blues was planning to add an IPA to its core lineup for a 2015 launch, it was at a time when hop supply had people jittery. Articles about hop shortages were common, The Wall Street Journal even predicting that prices could hit $10/pound. For some context: in 2015, the average price per pound in the U.S. was $4.38, an almost 40% increase from 2011’s price of $3.14, and the first time hops had broken $4 since 2005.

At the time, Dennis De Boer from Oskar Blues was in Australia on a mission. The directive from the brewery’s head of brewing operations, Tim Matthews, was simple: Find good hops. At Bushy Park hop farm, which is located just outside of the small Tasmanian city of Hobart, he found the Enigma variety, which was soon to be harvested for only its second commercial season. Rubbing the hops between his hands and talking to the growers, he described the character to Matthews over Facebook chat.

“I was actually at the North Carolina facility, in the brewhouse. He was in the hop field, and we were formulating the hop bill based on what they had available,” Matthews says. “We just constructed it right there and then.”

It’s the only time he’s built a beer that way, and he says it's something he’ll always remember. It’s also a moment that may be a big reason why it's hard to get Enigma in the U.S. According to the 2018 Crop Report from notable grower Hop Products Australia, there were only 40 tons produced, putting it sixth in tonnage out of seven hops in HPA’s portfolio. Their largest crop, Galaxy, produced 756 tons across both Bushy Park and their Rostrevor Hop Gardens site in Victoria.

Trillium, like Enigma when compared to Galaxy, is diminutive to Oskar Blues. Across two breweries, the Boston-based beer maker has an annual capacity of 37,500 barrels, having launched in 2013 when Oskar Blues was already 16 years old. By comparison, Oskar Blues produced more than 200,000 BBls in 2016. Nevertheless, founder Jean-Claude Tetrault says his suppliers don’t have the capacity to secure Trillium forward contracts for Enigma even though he’s used it in the past in one-offs and would love a chance to play around with it some more. Thankfully, he’s a sucker for Galaxy.

“The first time I tried it as a beer fan, and a hopeful brewery owner, I knew that was going to be the signature hop in our flagship IPA,” he raves. “There's something so incredibly powerfully unique in terms of its tropical fruit [flavors] and intense aromatics that just stood head and shoulders above the rest of the varieties at that time. And that's certainly true today.”

Galaxy hit the market in 2009 and makes up 55% of HPA’s total acreage. Sixty percent of that leaves Australia for export. Owen Johnston, HPA sales manager, says the current 756-ton harvest is forecasted to increase 14% next season, and 14% again in 2020. Johnston regularly hears complaints of Galaxy shortfall,  but it's not because there’s less available.

“In 2020, Galaxy is going to push up over 1,000 tons as we try and keep up with successful beers featuring our hops,” he says. “It is one of those things that couldn't go much faster.”

According to the Brewers Association’s 2017 Hop Usage Survey, Galaxy is the most sought-after hop U.S. brewers couldn't get enough of last year—16.1% of respondents said they couldn't acquire the amounts they wanted. That discrepancy was much more than Citra, which was the second most-requested hop with 6.1% of brewers saying they could have used more. For context, the total 2017 Citra harvest was more than six times that of Galaxy.

“I think my proudest element is not about quality or price or anything like that. What we set out to do is to present a range of flavors different to what was available,” Johnston says. “Galaxy, Vic Secret, and Enigma are unique enough to stand out in a global context. Forget about price and quantity in the business sense—it’s the fact that we're presenting a portfolio of flavors that craft brewers around the world find not just satisfactory, but build a single hop and celebrate them on their menus. That's the ultimate goal.”

Matthews agrees. He believes Oskar Blues’ combination of Australian hops Enigma, Ella, and Galaxy helps give a unique profile when compared to IPAs with American hops. He also thinks it’s something his brewery could emphasize more.

“I personally don't think we advertise it enough,” Matthews says. “We're one of the biggest users of Enigma in the entire world, and there are a lot of brewers in the States who are just getting onto that hop. I think it has more potential as the brewers find out about it, and the growers find out more about how to grow it consistently.”

In Enigma, Matthews is attracted to what he describes as “white wine, raspberry, and honeysuckle,” and how those characteristics round out other hop flavors such as the “huge citrus” from Galaxy. At Trillium, they’re looking for something a bit different. Tetreault says along with its citrus-dominant notes, Galaxy nicely complements the commonly used English Ale yeast strains in New England IPAs.

“I think there's sort of a collective nod around which type of hop varieties that can be, or are thought to be, the most expressive in what is now known as New England IPAs,” Tetreault says, referring to the haze- and aroma-driven IPAs popularized by his brewery as well as style pioneers The Alchemist, Hill Farmstead, and Tired Hands. “There's a sort of small group of hops that exhibit those types of flavors.”

That’s something Oskar Blues found out in the opposite way. “Australian hops are more haze active than other varieties. And I know this because I've done everything I can to limit the haze in certain beers,” Matthews says with a laugh.

Oskar Blues, as a brewery, favors bitter, dry, West Coast-style IPAs as opposed to the haze bombs popularized by Trillium and others mentioned above. The latter style is designed to maximize volatile aroma compounds given off by the hop and yeast interaction. Matthews adds that the large hop cone size, high polyphenol, carbohydrate, and protein counts—combined with a simple oil profile—make them ideal for the hazy styles. They also make his life a little more difficult.

At HPA, Johnston says the ever-growing world of hoppy beer is an exciting trend to be part of, and he’s proud that the hard work that’s done on the farms in Australia is helping breweries create industry-leading beers. He’s looking forward to an increased supply of both Galaxy and Enigma in the coming years, not to mention the commercial release of the as-yet-unnamed HPA-016. The latter was recently used by Australian brewery, Colonial Brewing Co, in its Pioneer IPA, the results described as “orange and mango juice character along with hints of pine.” While new varieties can be slow to become commercialized, he says that’s with good reason.

“We have the end use and the brewers in mind when we're growing, selecting, harvesting, and processing,” Johnston explains. “All the quality parameters we watch in the farm must feed through to impact in beer. If we make decisions on the farm that don't contribute to impact on beer, there must be good reason. It's like the classic rowing analogy: everything we do must make this boat go faster.”

—Luke Robertson