Beer or Die: Brewing Education in Denver

No beer-swilling biker gang, Hop Disciples is an educational program run by Great Divide Brewing Company. The next event takes place on Sept. 21.
The insignia resembles an outlaw motorcycle gang's, worn on the back of a leather or denim jacket: "Hop Disciples . . . Denver, CO . . . Beer Or Die."

The Hop Disciples logo shows the wearer's true colors. But, no, the Hop Disciples aren't getting into rumbles with fictional rivals like the Malt Banditos or Hell's Yeast over beer-ingredient supremacy. The biker-esque design is strictly a catchy piece of merchandising that has been emblazoned on T-shirts, hoodies and trucker hats marketed by Denver's Great Divide Brewing Co. since 2008 (originating around the same time as the TV show Sons of Anarchy).

The same name also denotes a free, friendly educational program now offered on a monthly basis by the brewery.

Hop Disciples meetings certainly don't take place in a noisy clubhouse or greasy cycle repair shop: They take place, instead, in a makeshift classroom on a mezzanine above Great Divide's loudly hissing and chugging, spotless canning line at its 35th Street and Brighton Boulevard location (with hop vines growing decoratively outside).

At the August get-together, the 30 attendees -- who resembled more closely graduate-level students than extras in Marlon Brando's
The Wild One -- drink in a PowerPoint presentation with complimentary cans of Titan IPA and Denver Pale Ale.

The attendees aren't even all hopheads who desire the most bitterly potent and resinous of IPAs. One transplanted homebrewer from Tucson, a worker within the defense industry, says he's partial to barleywines. And Clint Mcdowell, a graphic designer from Texas who remembers his dad religiously drinking Coors Light as he was growing up, says, "Personally, it's stouts that really got me into the craft scene."

Previous Hop Disciples lectures dealt with topics like water (for instance, how mineral content affects the flavor) and packaging (canning and kegging). A future talk will focus on yeast (no doubt citing its importance in kick-starting the fermentation process, as well as how it contributes to the flavor of some beers more than others). Another will discuss cooking and pairing different foods with beer.

This night's Hop Disciples discussion, however, focuses on, well, fittingly enough . . . hops.

Lupulin lecture

Brewer Bob Malone, who works for Great Divide's pilot brewery on a series of hop-forward beers (available in Great Divide's taprooms as part of a "Hop Disciples" series), points out the parts of the hop cones which contain the plant's resins and essential oils which add flavor and aromatics to beer. "This is where the money is -- in the lupulin glands," says Malone.

Hop farmers only grow female plants, which flower into those money-bringing buds. As they mature, the buds produce those sticky resins, essential oils. In order to facilitate large-scale production, the female plants are cloned. In some places, hops are grown under lights. Male plants are usually only used in breeding. Incredibly hearty, the plants grow spectacularly tall outdoors. However, hops can be subject to diseases like powdery mildew, and pests like aphids. There are a wide array of flavor and scent molecules that vary from hop strain to hop strain. In order to send the hop buds long distances, they are dried and compressed together; increasingly they are concentrated into an oil using a carbon-dioxide extraction process.
Brewer Bob Malone discusses hop anatomy.
If most of that information sounds like it could be coming from another type of Colorado manufacturer -- marijuana growers -- it's no surprise: Malone explains at the beginning of the lecture that hops and cannabis are part of the same botanical family.

Great Divide Brewing Manager Ro Guenzel, who oversees the Hop Disciples lectures, tells the audience that he and his colleagues need to stay educated as well. That's why Great Divide paid employees to attend the World Brewing Congress, recently held in Denver. There, a question was directed at brewery representatives: "Would you drink a beer made with a genetically-modified yeast?"

Guenzel asks the same question to audience members -- and it seems about half weren't averse. (It should be noted that Great Divide does not use any GMO yeast and has no current plans to do so). He also asks whether attendees would drink a beer that was made using extracted hop oil instead of compressed hop pellets or freshly-picked hops. "I'd have to taste it first," someone replies -- seemingly more concerned with flavor than any possible health or safety considerations resulting from ingesting the solvent extraction.

Brewing community

After the meeting, Guenzel says it's important for the brewery to educate itself about how consumers feel about beer, in addition to sharing its knowledge with the community.

Attendee Mcdowell discusses his takeaway from the lecture: "There was a lot of stuff that I didn't know that much about, including where these essential oils [in hops] came from, as well as where the industry stands right now."

The Hop Disciples are always looking for new members to get "patched" into the gang, so to speak.

Guenzel says, "I want to use our passion, our knowledge that we have here [at Great Divide], to help inform and educate, and drive the passion of the people in the community. And so, we're primarily gearing this towards homebrewers, people curious about craft, people just getting into it, to let them know what we go through and deal with on a daily basis."

"Beer is such a cultural-community unifier," says Guenzel. Hop Disciples meetings are a platform to discuss "the process, the techniques, the struggles."

The next meeting of the Hop Disciples will take place on Sept. 21 from 6-8 p.m. The subject: Oktoberfest history and the importance of fall beer festivals.
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Read more articles by Gregory Daurer.

Gregory Daurer is a Denver-based freelance writer and singer-songwriter, whose credits include 5280, WestwordSalon, Draft and High Times. He's also authored the novel A Western Capitol Hill.
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