Inside the Hop Pilot Programs of Maine Breweries
These days, the nuclear rate of innovation among Maine brewers is part of what makes our craft beer industry so explosive. Brewers work tirelessly to craft the next line-inducing, palate-slaking beers for ravenous fans. Whether it’s experimenting with wild yeast, unique barrel-aging techniques, or specialty ingredients, Maine brewers are continually pushing at the boundaries of craft beer.
No sector of innovation receives more attention, or has a bigger payoff for that matter, than brewing the next chic IPA. Like it or not, hoppy beers are the behemoths driving the craft beer industry to such stratospheric heights, and brewers are on an arms race to forge cutting-edge IPAs.
To take their hop-game to the next level, a number of Maine breweries feature a hop pilot program to experiment with hop varieties and combinations of hops. Essentially, these hop pilot programs are R & D that you and I get to drink.
One local hop pilot program that has been satisfying my lupulin cravings is Mast Landing Brewing Co.’s Green-to-Green small batch series.
Mast Landing President Ian Dorsey explained that the Green-to-Green program offers a number of benefits in addition to research and development.
“It allows us to consistently offer new and exciting beers to our customers with the ultimate hope of collecting feedback to help steer our future production schedule,” Dorsey stated.
When customers offer a resounding “Yes!” about a beer in the Green-to-Green series, Dorsey and his brewing team at the Westbrook brewery take note.
“Batches that perform exceptionally well end up being pulled out of the program as their own stand-alone brands. This is where Saccarappa IPA and Dash IPA originally started,” he explained.
Not only do beer drinkers get to sample forward-looking IPAs in each new batch, they can also help create new beers on the market when giving feedback.
One of the most important purposes of the Green-to-Green series that Dorsey noted was its benefit to his brewing team. He explained that the hop pilot program “allows brewers to exercise their creative muscles and keep them pushing the boundaries of the discipline.”
If you know anything about brewing beer, then you understand it’s akin to baking bread—these hop pilot programs keep brewers from having to bake the same loaf everyday. And inspired brewers equal blissful beer drinkers. It’s simple math.
Another popular hop pilot program is Soundings from Portland’s Rising Tide Brewing Company.
The East Bayside brewery has long been dedicated to precise science and quality control techniques to produce their palatable line-up of beers. So, it was no surprise that when I reached out to Rising Tide co-owner and brewmaster, Nathan Sanborn, his answers reflected this science-minded ethos.
“The Soundings beers get a ton of play in our sensory program, so that we can collect as much sensory data on each beer as possible, including its performance over time. We collate that data against the technical brewing data and recipe information, and use that information to apply to future or existing recipes in our portfolio,” Sanborn stated. “We are always trying to push our craft forward and make better beer each week so this data is invaluable.”
Technical answers like this illustrate why Rising Tide’s hop pilot program has produced so many exquisite iterations. There’s a deserved buzz around each small batch release.
Unlike many hop pilot programs where the grain bill and yeast strain of the beer remain the same, while only the hops change, Sanborn and the Rising Tide team take a more holistic approach to constructing each new recipe of Soundings.
Sanborn explained, “We also use the Soundings series to try out different base and specialty malt combinations, as well as other raw, pre-gelatinized, or malted grains.”
Through the monthly release of Soundings, Rising Tide gets surgical with its use of ingredients in every step of building an IPA. Most importantly, each batch has a unique flavor profile and pushes the conversation on IPAs forward for brewers and drinkers.
There are simply too many other hop pilot programs to list here, which just shows the tireless innovation and embarrassment of riches in Maine’s brewing community.
Here are a few more, however, that are always on my radar. Lone Pine Brewing features a program called Onesie: a series of single-hop IPAs focusing on the unique characteristics of one hop per batch. The hop wizards at Battery Steele Brewing have dubbed their hop pilot program Onsight—a series turning out some beautiful IPAs. And, in one of Maine’s first hop pilot programs, and one of the best, Sebago Brewing annually releases Hop Swap.
If you have yet to delve into Maine’s diverse hop pilot programs, the time is now. Who knows? Your feedback might just help create the next big IPA.
— Text: Dave Patterson. Dave is a freelance beer writer, novelist, and lover of all things Maine beer.