Sir Walter Raleigh once bet the Queen of England he could measure the weight of smoke. The perfect encapsulation of this exchange was offered in the 1995 movie Smoke. Sir Walter wanted to quantify the non-corporeal, to give literal weight to philosophy. The wager reflected a desire to expertly navigate between the hazy realm of dreams and reality. Now, imagine the stakes if Sir Walter preferred hoppy beer over tobacco.
Enter Lagunitas Brewing.
Recently, I was able to attend their Hop Vapin’ seminar. The concept is simple: perfume the air with a specific hop, and then pair that atmosphere with a beer made from the same hop. This event featured the Ekuanot, Cascade, and Simcoe hops, in ways many aren't used to experiencing them.
When I first saw the sign for the event, my eyes went straight to the word “Vapin’.” Being somewhat sarcastic, my mind flooded with hipster imagery. I was bemused by an imagined attempt to transcend gluten. Would I be jumping some pretentious shark, landing in a pillow-soft pile of neckbeards and hemp sandals?
When I read further and saw Lagunitas was involved, I was delighted. The company does all it can to understand hops, procure, engineer, and create with them. I knew they were proficient in their alchemy turning solid hops liquid. Now gas?
I stopped scoffing at the idea and booked a seat.
The event itself was an immersive sensory experience: the team heated the hops to around 250 degrees Fahrenheit, captured the vapor in a plastic bag, and, through a valve, released small amounts into the air near attendees. And that’s where things got a bit weird.
Most craft breweries have special glassware to concentrate the aromas, i.e. the ubiquitous tulip glass pushing the bouquet to one’s nose before quaffing. With the air filled with vaporized hops, there’s really no need for that kind of glass. They actually poured beers into the kind of plastic cups you might take on a picnic. No pinkies up.
With such a sensory overload, the actual tasting lost a lot of its impact. The boundaries were erased. It was like one’s whole head was in the glass.
While this may bring up Alice in Wonderland imagery, it’s actually quite tame. Sure, hops and weed are cousins in the plant world, but it’s a complex relationship that has given microbiologists fits. In other words, despite all the vaping, no one is getting high at these events.
At least not from the hops.
Based in Petaluma, California, Lagunitas Brewing Company is smack in the middle of marijuana country, so they know about haze of all sorts. Craft brewers have been known to partake from time to time, and that relationship is not anything Lagunitas shies away from either. There was an infamous bust in 2005 during the brewery's St. Patrick's Day party that won't be erased from the public's memory. Still, every year, the brewery's internal numbers for annual barrel production end in 420. And on April 20th, they release Waldo’s Special Ale. They have a little fun with it.
On the hops side, Lagunitas has worked hard to develop relationships with farmers. Founder Tony Magee changed the way hops are purchased from suppliers, dealing directly with farmers themselves. He’s since forged agreements in Canada for malting barley.
As explained by Mary Bauer, Master Brewer for Lagunitas, Brewmaster Jeremy Marshall (affectionately known as the “Hop Whisperer”) is heavily involved with farmers who develop new hop varieties. When Marshall gets one he likes, it goes through the various stages of a trial program, including the agronomics, before Lagunitas gets to use it in a commercial beer. After seven years, the hop can be trademarked and named.
They’ve also developed a secret, proprietary method of keeping hops “wet” year round. This allowed them to use fresh hops, rather than those typically dried in a kiln and pelletized, in Born Again Yesterday. While hops typically mature in autumn, this beer is released in the spring.
All of which brings this journey back to present day. For a time, publicly vaporizing hops was unique to Lagunitas. While no one would confirm specifics of other breweries vaping hops, the folks representing the company this night were adamant they were the first.
“I’ve seen it since we’ve started doing it,” says Joe Flores, Lead Brewer in Chicago. “Friends at other places say ‘Oh we’ve been doing it forever.’ That’s bullshit.”
I talked further with Flores about the company’s culture. “I don’t think there are many breweries that kind of present themselves as we do. Or openly admit to maybe our differences to the way we do stuff.”
“This really has nothing to do with weed culture, besides the fact that we’re using a volcano to do this.” said Dan Schnarr, Fermentation Footsoldier (they do love the non-traditional job titles). “It’s something fun, to have a hop experience.”
Sir Walter’s spirit is alive and well.