A Hop-Filled Quest For The Perfect Beer

What’s the secret the the perfect beer?” I know it’s kind of a silly question but, if you drink beer for reasons beyond the undeniable pleasures of inebriation, then I’d bet good money that you’ve pondered it before. For someone like me — a man obsessed with tasting every color of beer’s bountiful rainbow — it’s a question to ask before every drink order, every grocery store check out, and every home brewing session.

So it’s no surprise that “What’s the secret to the perfect beer?” was also the one question I kept asking during a weekend of camping, drinking, and eating at Elk Mountain Farms, for Goose Island’s “Road to the Harvest.”

“If you ask me, the secret to the perfect beer is taste,” said Susan, a contest winner from New York who was sitting next to me at dinner on the first night of Goose Island’s yearly hop festival. “If the beer doesn’t taste good then why would you drink it?”

I should point out that dinner was being served on long tables that stretched out between rows of bright green Amarillo hops. They’re the same hops that give Goose Island’s Sofie — perhaps my favorite table beer — it’s signature taste. As luck would have it, it’s also the beer that Susan and I were drinking as we talked.

“This beer tastes amazing,” she said. “I’m not drinking it because I’m thirsty, or because it’s refreshing, or even because I’m enjoy my buzz. I’m drinking it because it tastes amazing.”

I nodded and took a long drink. “Maybe the perfect beer is just free beer.”

Tom and Beth, another set of contest winners from Chicago who were sitting across from me, laughed at my not-quite-sober-yet-still-kinda-charming joke. We hadn’t even been served any food, but already our first night’s dinner was off to a fine start.

“The perfect beer accompanies the perfect meal,” said a man sitting across the table and a few seats down. I forgot his name but, after a few bottles of Sofie, can you really you blame me?

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the rustic opulence of the meal itself. Prepared by Chef Stephanie Izard, our first night’s dinner included several courses of rich, earthy food that complemented not only our surroundings, but our beer with pinpoint accuracy. The first course included an absurd goat liver mousse, served alongside an heirloom tomato and stone fruit salad and a luscious salmon poke. The main course included succulent beef kalbi ribs, eggplant zaalouk, and the best ratatouille that I’ve ever had. And then there was dessert. I can say, without hesitation, that Chef Izard’s sticky zucchini cake was the standout dish of the evening. It was moist and creamy without sacrificing the natural savory flavor of the zucchini. It was a dish that respected its individual ingredients, resulting in taste and texture that was nigh-heavenly.

When dinner was over, we retired to a common area at the center of the campground. I meandered between groups of people, introducing myself and asking them who they were, where they came from, and — most importantly — what they were drinking. Several fires crackled around us and filled the area with that magical aroma that only comes from burning wood under the stars. I’ll admit, I was worried to attend this event alone. I was there as a writer, which means I didn’t have a plus one, but I quickly learned that nothing builds friendships faster than good beer, good food, and good conversations.

“The secret to the perfect beer? Well, obviously as a hop farmer I would say balance,” explained Ed Atkins, the plant manager of Elk Mountain Farms. “Balance to me means two things, the two things I focus on in beer are hops and the malt. I like heavy malt-based beers and I like beers that have good hop character, but not necessarily over hopped like a lot of strong IPAs. I like a nice hoppy character.”

We were sipping beers under one of the communal tents near the campfires. Our morning had been spent touring the farm under Atkins’s guidance, from the aromatic fields of the farm, to the Rube Goldberg-esque machines that harvest, process, and pack the hops. It was a hot day, and I was exhausted, part from the tour and part from the night prior. But I was also being bathed in the invigorating, life-giving citrus smell of hops, an odor that I would carry with me for days to come and which helps any hangover. Why don’t they make this stuff into cologne?

“My go to IPA really is the Goose Island IPA,” said Atkins. “It’s a light IPA, it’s lower in alcohol, and it’s got good drinkability.”

After a weekend of drinking Goose Island’s finest beers, I see his point. I was never a big fan of IPAs, though Goose Island’s version strikes a nice balance. It’s confident without being overpowering, delivering a crisp taste without assaulting your pallet. It’s the ideal beer, as I discovered, for chatting with new friends on warm, Summer days.

“If balance is the secret to the perfect beer, then what’s the secret to growing the perfect hop?” I asked.

“90% of the work in terms of influencing any given crop is the weather,” Atkins explained. “You want to pick an area that’s conducive to the crop that you’re growing from a weather standpoint. And then work with the things that you can control the best that you can. I’d say 70% of a hop harvest is decided by water management, so that’s key.”

“And if you have a good harvest, how much beer can that actually make?” I asked.

“It varies dramatically. A light beer, a lightly hopped beer, would be a quarter pound of hops per barrel — and a US barrel is 31 gallons — so a heavily hopped beer would have two to two and half pounds of hops per barrel. I’ve heard of some brewers who make crazy claims, like 18 pounds per barrel,” he chucked, pausing to sip is Goose Island IPA. “But I don’t buy it.”

Atkins and I talked for awhile longer, our conversation meandering at a slow pace as we filled and refilled our glasses. I don’t often have the chance to sit down with hard working, salt-of-the-earth people, my day to day is spent behind a desk or in front of a screen, sending messages by email or Slack or Twitter. The chance to speak with Atkins — and others, away from the constant hum of an Internet connection — was just as refreshing as the beer we were drinking.

“The perfect beer is all dependant on drinkability,” said Keith Gabbett, the head brewer at Goose Island. “If you don’t want to have more than three ounces of it, or if you don’t want to have another one right after you drink it, then the brewer really hasn’t done their job. I’ve had some fantastic beers, I’ve had some really interesting beers, but I’ve only wanted a little taste of them, and then I never go back. But I got into brewing beer because I like beer, because I like drinking beer, so a perfect beer means I want to have more than one.”

We had just finished a few afternoon activities, which included a hot air balloon ride, a hops education class, and — yes — more drinking.

“That doesn’t mean that it has to be super light or super low in alcohol,” explained Gabbett, as he poured each of us a generous refill. “But it does mean that you want to have more than one.”

“So then, as the head brewer, how do you approach developing a new recipe to ensure that it has good drinkability and hop character?” I asked, doing my best to reuse what industry terms I had picked up over the weekend.

“When I create a new recipe, it’s always based off something that I want to drink, or it’s a style that I want to put my own twist on,” he said. “Usually I know enough about what I’m doing to make sure that the beer is drinkable when it’s all said and done.”

“You know, it’s interesting,” I said. “I’ve tried to brew my own beer on a few occasions, and I’ve never really been able to make anything that’s palatable. Do you have any advice for first time brewers?”

“If you were gonna start home brewing, first and foremost, go down to your local homebrew shop and talk to the guys there,” said Gabbett. He explained that beer is collaborative, and that the people who make it are usually happy to share their secrets. “They’re gonna help you get the kit that you need to start and make sure you don’t get in over your head.”

And, as strange as it might sound, I think Gabbett’s tips on home brewing capture what I love most about beer. Not that it’s delicious, which it is, or that when applied correctly it can make one drunk (or, when applied expertly, very drunk), but rather that beer is inherently a communal drink. It’s a collaborative effort, from seed to sip, and I’d like to think that’s why it’s the world’s most popular beverage. Call me a sap, but when I drink a fine beer, I feel connected.

Our second dinner was prepared by James Beard nominee Chef Jeremy Hansen. It was a market style meal with various indulgent options, including chicken and waffles with huckleberry jam, elk tacos on Yakima fry bread, elk steamed baos, and huckleberry cobbler with fresh, cool cream.

Now I know what you’re asking yourself, and the answer is “yes, I did eat literally every option.” And it was delicious.

I enjoyed dinner with a fresh pint of Goose Island IPA and the fine company of Tom and Beth, the couple from Chicago who I’d met earlier.

“When do you think the bus leaves?” asked Beth, as she checked her watch for the fifth time since dinner.

She was anxiously awaiting our after-dinner activity, which was a private concert from Chicago’s own Wilco. Tom and Beth had actually won a contest through Wilco’s Instagram account for a chance to attend Road to the Harvest. As I would soon find out, they were the biggest Wilco fans on the planet.

“I don’t think the bus leaves for another thirty minutes,” said Tom.

“Hmm,” Beth said through a long sip of beer. “There’s a bus over there right now. Maybe we should go sit on it?”

Tom looked at me with exacerbation, as if to say “What do you think?”

“Hey,” I said, “as long as they let us take beers on the bus, I’m happy.”

Wilco played just a mile away from where we were camping. The buses took us to another hop field that had a large stage set up with a small bar in the corner. The bar was serving the same beers that we had been enjoying all weekend with one notable addition: reserve bottles of the Bourbon County Brand Stout.

Another brief aside: I’ve drank a lot of beer in my time. More specifically, I’ve drank a lot of stout beer. So you can imagine my excitement, my pure electric elation, when I got to drink the elusive Bourbon County Brand Stout. It is, by a generous margin, the best beer I have ever tasted. It was dark and delicious and the savory-to-sweet flavors were balanced like a goddamn Hattori Hanzo sword. It was like listening to The Beatles for the first time. And it was, of course, the perfect aperitif to a private Wilco concert.

Speaking of which, have you ever seen Wilco live? It was a first for me, and it was spectacular. We all gathered together in a dark hop field in the middle of Idaho, drinking rare beers, and watching one of the greatest rock bands on the face of a planet play a show, just for us. It was one of those moments that can only be described as surreal, the kind of story that I tell friends and family for years to come, likely over a beer or two, and with my hand held over my heart. “I swear to God,” I’ll say. “It really happened, I’m not making this up.”

Tom and I clinked our glasses when the show was over. He smiled, and told me that he was happy to have been present for my first Wilco concert. I think that’s when it hit me, when I finally discovered the secret to the perfect beer. It’s not hops character or drinkability or flavor or alcohol, at least not for me.

The secret to the perfect beer is the people you drink it with.