When the stars align, magic can happen. Sometimes that magic is great beer.
Since the early 1900s, John I. Haas has been on top of the hop game. More than a century ago, Haas stood the industry on its head by pioneering the world’s first seedless hop, changing the course of the crop’s production forever. Haas continued to build its reputation as an innovative, cutting-edge business and is now the leading hop supplier in North America.
To make a long story shorter, the company’s history and other interesting information is easily found on its website, johnihaas.com. What the site can’t fully explain is the magic. The meeting of the minds behind Haas’ latest invention — Incognito.
According to Haas, Incognito is “a 100 percent all-natural hop product crafted to deliver highly concentrated flavor while maximizing brewing efficiency and reducing process loss.” The trademarked extract is designed to make beer without using any whole cone or hop pellets, the traditional, centuries old methods used worldwide. Made from a single variety, the syrup is used as the flavoring component instead of just a bittering agent.
It was created by the crew at Haas’ Innovations Center on River Road. When the brewery was built at that facility in 2013, CEO Alex Barth challenged Haas brewmaster Virgil McDonald to make an IPA beer using all liquid hop products. The use of extract in brewing is not a new concept, but it was used in small quantities as a bittering agent. It was thick and not practical to store. Incognito was conceptualized in 2016 and offered commercially this spring.
The groundbreaking product is easily stored, stable, usable at room temperature and drastically cuts a brewer’s shipping, storage, and waste management costs. Traditionally, following harvest, hops are removed from the bines (the technical term for hop vines), dried and either stored or shipped in large bales or compressed into pellets. Incognito delivers concentrated hop flavor to beer, and is about five times as potent as hop pellets.
According to Michael Visgil, Haas brewing solutions specialist, each of those is a major selling point for Incognito. Add to the mix the fact that it consistently delivers the characteristics of its variety and Incognito is flowing off the shelves.
But the creation of a new product has not been Haas’ only area of growth. “For a while now, Haas has been acquiring talent to establish an innovations team in the research and development process,” explained flavor sensory chemist Victor Algazzali, who joined the company five years ago.
Not long after that, Haas hired Jeff Barnes, a research brewer with a chemistry degree and a craft brewing certificate from Central Washington University; Visgil, a brewing solutions specialist from Philadelphia whose background includes research and development; and director of hop breeding Michael Ferguson, who was a strawberry breeder in California.
They represent the teams responsible for breeding new hop varieties, hop growing and developing new beers. They also oversee the production, sale, and shipping of whole hop cones, hop pellets, and hop extract to brewers around the world — in other words, for getting beer into glasses.
They soon discovered they all work well together, and the result was Incognito. During its development, no new equipment was needed thanks to Haas’ patent-pending process for making the extract. It is available in three varieties developed here in the Valley. Haas plans to continue to expand Incognito into its existing strains and possibly, in the future, new strains.
“It is a long, slow process,” explained Algazzali. “But part of our job is predicting trends.” Along those lines, Algazzali ran private tasting rooms at the annual Craft Brewers’ Conference earlier this year in Denver, providing Haas direct feedback from hundreds of brewers.
“We use that as an opportunity to get in front of customers a new variety that is not commercially available yet,” he explained. “It goes through many phases of trials and if we find it commercially viable, then it would go back to Michael (Ferguson) to scale up production of that hop.”
With the systems and teams it has in place, Haas’ unique setup allows the company to do what others cannot. “We can grow 10 acres of an experimental variety, brew it, test it, run trials,” Ferguson said. “Most brewers are not going to have that capability.”
While the conversation around the tasting room table with Algazzali, Barnes, Visgil and Ferguson veers from technical things to how most hops smell amazing but not many make a good brew - they are clearly proud of their work and the company.
Valley beer drinkers can occasionally find leftover Haas experimental beer on tap at Cowiche Canyon Kitchen and Ice House Bar or a couple other restaurants. However, many people have probably consumed Haas products because it sells directly to large breweries around Seattle, Portland,and Hood River, as well as to customers such as Yakima Valley Hops, which then redistributes the products to breweries across the U.S. “We think like brewers,” Algazzali said.
Indeed, that is a simple explanation of a complex process, an ancient craft based on science. What makes it anything but simple is that brewing good beer also takes creativity, instinct, and perhaps just a bit of magic.