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The New Fairy Dust: Lupulin Powder Hits Richmond-Area Breweries

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If you’ve ever cradled a fresh hop flower in your palms, gently separating the leaves from the soft, yellow powder inside to inhale the heady natural fragrance, then you know the smell of lupulin.

When I first tasted a beer infused with lupulin — without initially knowing what magical substance had contributed to the beer’s creation — I was immediately transported to a hop field. Then I learned that this new-fangled product was being used right here in Richmond.

The Magic Ingredient

Historically, hops have been used in beer to balance the natural sweetness of the malts with hops’ natural bitterness. They also add a preservative effect. Here in the U.S., the more-is-better mindset took hold among craft breweries, and the addition of an abundance of hops added off-the-charts bitterness and in-your-face flavor.

The conelike flowers of a hop plant consist of green leafy parts that cover golden drops of resin and essential oils. Though brewers sometimes use fresh hops in brewing, the plant’s short harvest season and limited shelf life make the dried version — usually in the form of pellets — the preferred form.

In February, a large Washington-based hop supplier, Yakima Chief-Hopunion, released a new form to the commercial market. Home brewers will find it in shops this summer. Let’s drill down on what the company is doing: It uses a proprietary cryogenic process to separate the lupulin and the leaves, preserving both components and selling them separately as either LupuLN2 or Debittered Leaf. With the two components now separated, a brewer can dial the amount of each up or down.

Richmond Brewers Weigh In

Here in Richmond, brewers and fans got a sneak peek when they received a batch of lupulin powder before the official release. I had assumed that the first memorable lupulin-fortified beer I’d enjoyed was so delightfully hoppy because of the magic powder. But I may have assumed incorrectly.

“I don’t necessarily think that lupulin powder is the only way to achieve that intense of a character,” says Matt Tarpey of the Veil Brewing, the man who created the beer that transported me to the hop fields. Though he believes some of the Veil’s customers might identify lupulin powder in a side-by-side tasting, he doesn’t think they can tell a difference from batch to batch. “I couldn’t tell,” he says, “and I’m the most critical of our beers.”

Even the powder itself doesn’t convey the expected aromatic intensity. When brewers at Triple Crossing first opened a bag of it, recalls Adam Worcester, “We were all expecting the smell to be so awesome — but it was muted.”

Nonetheless, the company’s lupulin has its advantages. Tarpey’s been playing with it since December in about a half-dozen beers. “The whirlpool is really nice — you get a great bright character,” he says. “I didn’t notice from a perception standpoint more or less bitterness being picked up … but the characteristics that we’re looking for in those hops were able to shine a little bit more.”

Removing the vegetal characteristics of hops isn’t all moonlight and roses. “I didn’t think it was as punchy as normal Citra pellets would have been,” brewer Jeremy Wirtes says of Triple Crossing’s Surprise Valley double India pale ale. “Hop pellets would be a little bit green and a little bit more forceful.”

Lupulin powder can be challenging to work with as it tends to clump. In February, the company’s release also included a pellet form. “We found that there are challenges with the powder for some,” Melody Meyer, its director of marketing says. “There’s also comfortability with pellets.” The pellets still float a bit because of the oiliness of the resin, but incorporation is better.

“Like any other ingredient, the result largely depends on how it is used in the brewing process,” says Tom Sullivan of Ardent Craft Ales. “We like that it can be used at any point in the fermentation phase without harming — at least we think — the yeast collection process.”

The biggest benefit of lupulin powder may be practical. Though it currently costs twice as much as pellets, a brewer uses only half as much. Fewer pounds of product decreases freight costs and storage space. In addition, lupulin soaks up less beer in production, increasing yield.

When asked about the future of lupulin powder at Triple Crossing, Wirtes says, “I just don’t see it delivering. It’s just the newest hop product — everyone’s freaking out about it, but we’re not totally sold on switching over yet.”

“I think it’s beneficial for the most part,” says Tarpey. “Am I 100 percent convinced that I’m going to change all of my contracts from pellet to lupulin? No, not for sure. I’m still on the fence on that.”

At the end of the day, after all, the magic is in the hands of the brewer. S

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