Learning the Love Language: How Even the Smallest Breweries Can Evaluate Their Hops

Relying on the spot market is no reason to accept hops that don’t meet your brewery’s standards. Here are tips from the hop-sensory pros on making sure you get the traits and quality you need.

Stan Hieronymus Dec 20, 2021 - 12 min read

Learning the Love Language: How Even the Smallest Breweries Can Evaluate Their Hops Primary Image

Photo: Matt Graves/mgravesphoto.com

Indiana’s 3 Floyds is a “have” when it comes to hop selection, sending a team to the Northwest each fall to select the hops the brewery will use over the next year. Yet in October, director of brewing engineering Todd Haugh echoed a concern often expressed by breweries not large enough to participate.

Although 3 Floyds has contracts for most of its hops, the brewery also plans to purchase some on the spot market, shopping alongside the “have nots.” After rubbing and smelling offerings from the 2021 harvest, Haugh spoke honestly about what was rejected: “Some lots are going to show up on the spot market we should not brew with,” he said during a Brewers Supply Group (BSG) webinar.

It’s no wonder that the “have nots” worry that the hops larger breweries pass on are of lesser quality. “That perception, it is there,” counters Juno Choi, craft-beer strategist at BSG. “It’s not true.”

Getting Great Hops from the Spot Market

Farmers around the world harvest more than 250 million pounds of hops a year. There are plenty to choose from after Sierra Nevada, Firestone Walker, Bell’s, and even Anheuser-Busch InBev are done shopping.

Below are some ways that smaller breweries can make sure they acquire hops that will make their brewers happy.

  • Define what you consider to be a great example of each variety you use. While the amount of information about the essential-oil composition in a particular lot continues to expand, getting to know a hop still centers on sensory evaluation. Setting up a sensory program involves an investment, but it can protect an already substantial one. For example, BSG contracts Citra at $15.75 a pound, and sixty-four 11-pound boxes (704 pounds total) would cost $11,088.
  • Communicate with vendors to find hops with the qualities you’ve defined.
  • Assess each lot when it arrives at the brewery and alert vendors when those hops are flawed.

How to Evaluate Hop Pellets

Much of the romance of selection is “the rub”—crushing raw hops with the palms of your hands, rupturing the lupulin glands, and releasing the aromatics. This is how brewers make selections immediately after harvest.

Evaluating pellets takes a bit more preparation. Tessa Schilaty, sensory research coordinator at Yakima Chief Hops, and Tiffany Petra, YCH sensory manager, have outlined the method in a video posted on YouTube.


  • Use a spice grinder to create the samples.
  • Each sample should be five grams per assessor. Using equivalent sizes is particularly important when comparing the same variety from different lots.
  • Transfer each sample into an amber jar. These can be created in advance and stored cold, but return them to room temperature before evaluating.
  • Review the lexicon that will be used (see “Learning the Language,” below).
  • Shake the jar to release and mix the odor compounds.
  • Take the first smell a few inches away from the nose, logging any aromas.
  • Move a little closer, making note of the most impactful aromas.
  • Try to use the agreed-upon lexicon, but don’t be afraid to describe other perceived aromas.

Learn the Language

YCH has created its own hop lexicon, available for download. That dictionary of hop aromas is similar to one from the American Society of Brewing Chemists (see below) so that it aligns with the industry as a whole.

BarthHaas has a different flavor language, with more than 70 descriptors organized into 12 categories. The global hop supplier also sells a hop-aroma standards kit with aroma vials representing those 12 categories.

Schilaty and Pitra created more than 60 reference standards to train YCH panelists. Those focus on what they call minor complexes (such as lemon, lime, and grapefruit) as opposed to major complexes (such as citrus). They use a mix of food-grade compounds from chemical suppliers, flavor syrups, essential oils, and a bunch of other random things to produce the standards.

“We have to get creative,” Schilaty says.

Pitra names off the “grocery-store standards” that they like: “Ribena-juice concentrate for black currant, Laffy Taffy Banana for banana, Ivory Bar soap for soapy, canned pineapple juice for pineapple, peach gummy candy for peach, and fresh tomato vines for tomato plant, to name a few. Over the past couple of years, we’ve vetted dozens of standards, so anyone struggling to find a standard for a specific attribute should contact us directly.”

Unlike other lexicons, Yakima Chief’s makes onion/garlic (OG) and “dank” their own top-line categories, reflecting the importance, negative or positive, of those aromas in newer American hop varieties.
Using one method to assess onion/garlic, panelists smell vials, or taste beers, containing food-grade chemical standards such as allyl disulfide (garlic) at varying concentrations. “Another is to grind high OG hop lots at different concentrations with no OG hop lots and ask panelists to rank the samples by OG intensity,” Pitra says. This requires having sensory data already documented to make the sample selection.

“For a more casual training exercise, we’ve chopped samples of garlic, red onion, green onion, shallot, chive, white onion, etc. to give panelists exposure to a variety of alliaceous aromas,” she says.

Schilaty calls “dank” a nightmare term because it has at least five possible meanings. However, American brewers most often use it to mean “smells of cannabis,” and YCH panelists train for it using a vial of cannabis extract. “It made sense for us to use the word to define something that was not represented (in the lexicon),” she says. “We wanted to avoid having the word cannabis appear on our product descriptions, as we do a lot of work internationally with countries where cannabis is both frowned upon and very illegal.”

Talk the Talk

Chicago’s Hop Butcher for The World has grown large enough—the brewery used about 30,000 pounds of hops to produce about 7,000 barrels of beer in 2021—to participate in hop selection, albeit remotely. The selection team also has grown, from three in 2019 to four the next year and five in 2021. Going into selection, they know “this is what we’re looking for, how you describe it, either good or bad,” says cofounder Jude La Rose.

They continue to build on their aroma knowledge-base by evaluating every new package of hops when it arrives. “Because we are using Northern and Southern Hemisphere hops, it seems like we are always rubbing hops,” he says. “We’ll get a spot hop and go, ‘What was that, can we find more of it?’”

They came across lots from the 2021 crop that smelled of smoke (“some chipotle”) and asked the supplier—in this case YCH—for additional lots of Mosaic to try. “The next three cuts were knockouts,” La Rose says. “They ask what you like. … We eventually found some great hops.” (“This has all the dank,” they said.)

The team at Hop Butcher has learned they like qualities in Mosaic that other breweries might reject. “Mosaic wasn’t hitting,” Rose says. “We were missing diesel. We want that huge fruit, then diesel.”

Choi at BSG recalls a similar conversation with Beachwood brewmaster Julian Shrago about the lots of CTZ from which he was selecting. “They were too clean. He wanted some onion/garlic,” Choi says.

Be Systematic

Like other suppliers, BSG has its own sensory panel. “We are going to do our own selection. Suppliers can reject lots from growers,” Choi says. BSG can refer to its own notes when a brewer receives a lot that doesn’t meet expectations.

The first thing a supplier will ask an unhappy brewer is the lot number. “Hopefully, they still have the hops,” Choi says. “Ideally, we are dealing with it before it is in the beer.” He says it’s important for brewers to evaluate each box of hops on its own. “We are going to check our own notes. You want to allow suppliers to address their concerns.”

That solution might be as simple as replacing one box with another.

BSG requires that breweries purchase 1,000 pounds of a variety to participate in selection, but the company will write contracts for quantities as small as an 11-pound box. “Some smaller breweries don’t know that. They don’t realize that contracts can be added to,” Choi says. A contract begins a relationship, with BSG or some other supplier.

One aspect of buying hops is a little like ordering wine in a restaurant: Rejecting a bottle because you “don’t like the taste” is not as simple as pointing out it is corked. Suppliers would rather deal with expectations in advance. “If a brewer has an idea of what they are looking for, we can talk about that,” Choi says. “Not a lot of people understand or do that. We might even be able to provide a sample.”

That works best when everybody is talking the same hop language.

“A brewery that is new to hop sensory may not have the bandwidth for [a full-blown program], and that’s totally fine,” Schilaty says. “We're always encouraging brewers to start small; just opening the bag, giving it a whiff, and jotting down a few notes is a great jumping-off point. You can always build from there.”

The Love Language

The American Society of Brewing Chemists Sensory Subcommittee compiled 107 unique terms to describe the aroma of hops:

Grapefruit, Orange, Lemon, Lime, Tangerine, Mandarin

Mango, Pineapple, Papaya, Banana, Lychee, Guava, Passion Fruit, Coconut

Raspberry, Strawberry, Blueberry, Blackberry, Concord Grape, White Grape, Gooseberry, Black Currant/Catty, Red Currant, White Wine

Fruity—Stone Fruit
Peach, Apricot, Nectarine, Cherry, Plum

Cantaloupe, Honeydew, Cucumber, Watermelon

Apple, Pear

Geranium, Rose, Lavender, Jasmine, Elderflower, Potpourri

Pine, Resinous, Cedar, Tobacco, Sandalwood

Black Tea, Green Tea, Mint, Rosemary, Bergamot, Dill, Thyme, Basil, Sage, Cannabis, Skunk, Menthol

Fresh-Cut Grass, Lemongrass, Green Leaves, Hay

Black Pepper, Clove, Licorice/Anise, Ginger, Coriander, Cardamom

Sweet Aromatic
Caramel, Chocolate, Vanilla, Bubblegum

Plastic, Rubber, Burnt Rubber, Smoke, Petroleum, Diesel

Cheese, Cream, Waxy

Musty, Soil, Marsh, Moss

Onion, Green Onion, Garlic, Green Bell Pepper, Celery, Asparagus, Cabbage