Brewer’s Spotlight: Virgil McDonald from John I. Haas Innovations Brewery
Our “Brewer’s Spotlight” is a series of conversations with innovative brewers across the country. With the Yakima Hop Harvest in full swing, we thought it would be a good time to sit down with John I Haas’ own Virgil McDonald, head brewmaster at the Haas Innovations Brewery in Yakima, Washington. We talked about working with sensory panels, falling in love, and what it’s like to squeeze out the nuances of something unknown.
Q: The Innovations Brewery isn’t a traditional brewery, and you’re not exactly a traditional brewer. So how do you describe your job?
Virgil McDonald: As a brewmaster for a hops company, I’m not a traditional production brewer. Our beer is a research tool that helps guide our customers. So, my job is to be a conduit between our hops breeding program, R&D and Marketing & Sales. The beer we brew is evaluated by our in-house sensory panel, led by Victor Algazzali. Based on the sensory data we get back, we determine whether to move a hop variety or hops product forward or not. The panel also gives us the initial characteristics of a hop—spicy or floral or whatever it might be—and that helps educate brewmasters from around the world and helps drive future products for our customers.
Q: Were you ever really surprised by something the sensory panel came back with?
Virgil: Well, I won’t tell you the about the times the panel said my beer tastes like dog food or anything like that <laughs>…But there are certainly some unique flavors that come through. Like a hop we just trialed, called Bru-1. It had this big pineapple and mango flavor—and that’s just very unique. I don’t think people expect that kind of taste from beer or hops, typically. But, more often than not, I’m just surprised when the panel says they actually like my beer <laughs again>.
Q: You’re on the bleeding edge of brewing here in Yakima—What is it like brewing with experimental hops?
Virgil: I think our breeding program here at John I. Haas is something really exciting and different and the success of the HBC varieties in the market place is really telling. We have some great breeders here and when you find a hop family with certain genetic traits like HBC 472 or HBC 438, we’re just slowly learning about their genetics and getting some really unique flavor outcomes.
Q: What makes them so special?
Virgil: I like to say I fell in love with an HBC 472 hop then I met her sister (HBC 438)…and her sister introduced me to her daughter—now I’m in love with whole family. The cool story about HBC 472, when I first brewed with it, I thought I’d made a mistake, but I couldn’t pin it down to anything. I’d never seen a flavor result like that and didn’t know what was going on. I made everyone swear not to talk about it. But when we managed to brew it again, we knew we were onto something.
One of the cool things about hops is, if you take a mother and father hop, once they pollinate and create seeds, every single seed is a unique child. Every one is a new variety. That’s why you don’t grow hops from seeds; you grow them from root stock. So HBC 438 and HBC 472—it’s like no other hop flavor. You get coconut and some cedar and fruits, it’s amazing.
Q: Was it hard moving from a mindset of production brewing to focus, instead, on constant innovation?
Virgil: A production brewers’ challenge is to make the same thing, every time. When I worked for Anheuser Busch, we made beer all over the world and it had to taste the same, everywhere, and that was a challenge. Now, I’m like a pinch hitter in baseball—or maybe a sniper is a better way to think about it, because I get one shot. It’s 3 balls, 2 strikes and we’re one run down. This is it, because we don’t have a lot of hops and the first batch pretty much has to be right. And I’m trying to squeeze out the nuances of something unknown. I was trained as a chemist and I spent my early years doing research in a lab. It’s not much different—and it translates very linearly to what we do here. So I feel right at home.
Q: How do you come up with new beers?
Virgil: I hate to tell you how simplistic my thought process is. First, we smell the hops and I’ll often know a bit about its genetics going in, so I know what to expect. Then I have a very innocuous beer that I use as a base, like a blank canvas. It’s got light malts, very neutral yeasts. I do a light hopping late in the brewing process to see how it will actually taste and I slowly start to understand the nature of the hop, get to know its personality.
As we brew with it more, and the sensory panel tastes it, we learn its characteristics: pine or fruit or rose. Then you can say, oh, well that fits a certain style. For instance, a new experimental hop came through and everyone on the panel said it tasted like blueberries or blackberries—so, naturally, we put it in a berry wheat beer. We’re always trying to look at market trends and, then figure out how our hops can help fit that need for our customers.
Q: What was your favorite beer you’ve brewed here?
Virgil: The most memorable was the first. When I came here, we hadn’t even broken ground on the brewery. People started moving in around June 2013 and they told me we needed to have a beer brewed for the grand opening by mid-August. I didn’t even have equipment! It was a bare building. To put it together, to get it running, we had an army helping us. I’ve been involved in a lot of big projects in my career, but this was monumental. I’ve actually blocked most of it out, like post-traumatic stress syndrome. I was sleeping here with an alarm clock every 30 minutes to change the hoses. But we did it. That day, presenting Alex and Stephan Barth’s father, Henry, the patriarch of the company, with a beer from a brewery that was his dream and vision, that was hugely meaningful.