Home Cover Behind The Beer: Neshaminy Creek Brewing Company’s Jason Ranck Discusses The Process...

Behind The Beer: Neshaminy Creek Brewing Company’s Jason Ranck Discusses The Process Behind The Shape Of Hops To Come

The brewer of the Pennsylvania-based company describes the steps for picking the perfect hops, the importance of whirlpool additions and balancing the pineapple flavor for the popular hazy variant.

Photo Courtesy of Neshaminy Creek Brewing Company

When Neshaminy Creek Brewing Company opened its doors in the small Philadelphia suburb of Croydon back in 2010, the area’s craft beer scene was much smaller.  There weren’t nearly as many hyper-local breweries vying for the attention of drinkers, allowing Neshaminy Creek to simply focus on making quality craft beers while establishing a recognizable brand in the area.  As the company evolved, so did its need to keep up with demand, creating new limited releases and hiring more employees, persistently growing into a southeast Pennsylvania powerhouse.

One of the first new hires Neshaminy Creek brought on was Jason Ranck.  In 2012, Ranck joined the company and helped it continue to grow, before seeking other opportunities, but he returned early last year and now the brewer is a crucial part in creating Neshaminy Creek’s beer lineup. 

Ranck and his crew work tirelessly to bring beer to the masses, brewing 24 hours a day – there’s a day shift and a night shift – for a majority of the week, with a standard day consisting of four brews on a 15-barrel brewhouse.  But there’s also a smaller three barrel system and a one and a half barrel pilot system for potential new ideas or limited releases that might only be available in the Croydon taproom or at the company’s Jenkintown brewpub.  Limited releases are aplenty for Neshaminy Creek as of late and can often vary in beer type, in fact the company’s best-selling beer actually started with an abbreviated run.

Neshaminy Creek’s one and a half barrel pilot system. (Photo by Ed Miller)

The Shape of Hops to Come, an 8.5 percent American West Coast-style Imperial IPA that blends a juicy, dank flavor with a ton of bitterness, started years ago as a limited release but thanks to the power of demand, Neshaminy Creek elected to make it one of their year-round efforts.  Featuring Apollo, Newport, Simcoe, Topaz, and Citra hops, Shape of Hops has a complex and robust flavor, but finding the right hops to ensure its consistency is no simple task.

“We have, in the past, gone out to [Yakima Valley, Washington] once a year, during hop harvest, and the hops we use most of, we’ll be able to do what they call a brewer’s cut,” Ranck recalled.  “They’ll take pretty much a little four-inch cube out of the side of the bale and you’d go rub and check it out and kind of compare multiple varieties and then you choose which one is closest to your flavor aroma profile.”

When choosing the right hops for Shape of Hops, Ranck says it’s all in the nose.

“The whole key is smelling your ingredients and checking them out.  Depending on what day it was harvested, what field it was from, what crop group, it can have way different attributes than what you’re expecting.  A lot of that is then getting used to remembering what that raw sensation is like, rubbing the hops and putting your nose in it – and smelling the actual raw oil of the hops is kind of getting to know what was a great year and what that smelled like, so when you go back to do that raw selection, it’s kind of in your mind.”

Given the finicky nature of hops and the ever-changing landscape of the industry, there are certain varieties that are no longer available, which can pose a problem in providing Neshaminy Creek’s drinkers with a consistent product.  It’s happened before to some of the company’s other brews, such as the year-round County Line IPA and Shape of Hops, but was an issue that required a little revamping in order to keep the overall flavor balance.

“We use a lot of Simcoe in [Shape of Hops] and Citra and that’s what’s interesting too – there’s certain hops that we’re no longer able to get, so trying to keep that beer the same but with different hops from what we cannot get anymore,” said Ranck.

Brewing a batch Shape of Hops typically takes between six and eight hours, depending on the clean up process.  According to Ranck, the boil is basically 90 minutes, the mash is about an hour, transfering the mash to the kettle is about two hours and then there’s a half hour period that is for whirlpool, which consists of 15 minutes and then rest for 15 minutes.  It’s at this point Shape of Hops gets a healthy, heaping addition of hops, heavily impacting the overall flavor.

Whirlpool is a process separating solids, that are proteins, which have coagulated during the boil.  Those solids get pushed, thanks to centrifugal force, to the outside wall and drop down to form a cone shape in the center of the tank and are left behind when moving to the fermentor.

“So, Shape of Hops in particular has a really large whirlpool addition,” Ranck explained.  “During that process, we add a lot of hops to the whirlpool since hops have bittering properties – hops have a lot of properties.  They have antimicrobial properties, they have bittering properties which are utilized by boiling, so basically alpha acids in hops are what cause bitterness and in order to be bitter, they have to be isomerized by boiling, so the formula is the same after boiling, it’s just the shape is different.  And then, all of a sudden, that compound becomes bitter and hoppy and that’s what balances the sweetness of the beer. As you add them progressively throughout the brew, you’re getting less bitterness out of them and more flavor and aroma.”

Between boiling and whirlpool, there’s a fair amount of product loss due to evaporation.  The pre-boil volume of a full kettle is 18 barrels. After boiling, dry-hopping in the centrifuge and moving over to the brite tank, Ranck and his crew get about 14 barrels when it’s time for the beer to be packaged.

“There’s a loss every step of the way and a lot of people are shocked when they find that you lose about a third from kettle-full all the way to brew packaging, you know?  Every beer is different but [Shape of Hops] just has a ton of hop material in it – there’s just a lot of hops in that beer.”

While people might be shocked about the amount of product loss, it hasn’t slowed down the public’s love for Shape of Hops, leading Neshaminy Creek to experiment a little with the beer, creating a more hazy, limited release dubbed The Shape of Haze to Come.  From there, Ranck and his crew tested smaller batches of Shape of Haze that incorporate fruit, such as Blueberry Shape of Haze to Come and Pineapple Shape of Haze to Come and unleashed both on a wider distribution scale, as opposed to a taproom-only special.  And Pineapple Shape just proves Neshaminy Creek can brew a trendy beer and absolutely crush it, while still focusing on their year-rounds and what might be next, which Ranck hinted could potentially be another Shape of Haze variant before the end of the year.

Brewed in one massive load and then sent out, Pineapple Haze required somewhat of an educated guess for the fruit during fermentation.  While fermenting, it was tested, like all of Neshaminy Creek’s beers, in the company’s laboratory area for both original gravity and diacetyl, the latter of which can give beer an unwanted oily, artificial butter flavor.  But can it be difficult to balance the pineapple with the flavors already brought out by the specific hops used?

Lab tests for some of Neshaminy Creek’s latest efforts. (Photo by Ed Miller)

“That pineapple worked well with that flavor profile where it was just, it didn’t really detract – too much is too much and you don’t want to be just drinking Dole pineapple juice, you know,” Ranck laughed.  “If you have too many fighting elements, you get a mess. You definitely want contrast and different ingredients to do their part but that was one that was a no-brainer, so it wasn’t a far-stretch.”

Making sure the flavors work well together is important to Ranck, who made it clear his goal is to always craft a well-executed beer, each and every day.

“When I’m there at the end of the night and I see a person across the bar order three of the same thing, that’s the best compliment you can ever have in your life – if someone finds what you do interesting enough, and good enough, to want more.”