After a long day of futuristic work and hydroponic farming in Gizmodo's 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. That's why we've partnered with the beer gurus at Sixpoint to brew the Beer of the Future.
We're pretty excited about this limited edition, exclusive, experimental beer, which we've named Hop Tech 431. Over the coming week, we'll share some of the key steps in its creation, including Sixpoint's recipe creation, small-batch brewing, and the process of sensory analysis. Better yet, you'll be able to enjoy your very own futuristic pint in person at many of the Home of the Future's live public events.
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 Flavor
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 flavor of the finished beer.
Hop cones; photo courtesy John I. Haas
Brewers often blend up to ten hop varieties into a single beer to get the flavor 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 characterized 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 flavors of the future.
"We're seeing an evolution in flavor 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.
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?"
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."
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 fertilized by what breeders call "open pollination" (i.e. from random pollen floating in the air), meaning that 431's father is a mystery, too.
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."
Try A Glass
Hop Tech 431 will be available for tasting at the Gizmodo Home of the Future. Stay tuned for more details. Over the coming week, we'll be looking into how Sixpoint created the recipe for Hop Tech 431, as well as joining them for the brewing and sensory analysis process. Watch this space!
Hours: 11:00 am to late. The Gizmodo gang will be working on-site all week—with super-fast wifi, on snazzy furniture—and we'll be hosting events every night. Check back for more information on how to RSVP.
Cost of Entry: Free!
For all media inquiries regarding the Gizmodo Home of the Future, please contact Patrick Kowalczyk at firstname.lastname@example.org.