My hands turned green in front of my eyes. My palms, sticky and dank, slowly transformed into warped versions of the Hulk’s fists. Between the tips of my middle fingers, I rubbed the culprit: pungent resin and essential oils from the leaves of the Loral® hop.

“Everyone’s loving on Loral®,” I heard someone say. As I brought the leaves to my nose, I could understand why. Dripping with earthy citrus and lemon pepper, the fresh hop cones in my hand made me swoon.

I dropped the crushed hop back onto the table and moved to another hop: El Dorado®. Time for another sniff. As I picked up the hop and crushed it between my fingers, my hands turned an even darker shade of green.

The 2019 Great American Beer Festival Yakima Chief Hops (YCH) and Pink Boots Society (PBS) Hop Blend Selection had begun.

Literally born in the hop fields, the idea to create a blend between YCH, a 100% grower-owned global supplier of premium quality hops, and PBS, the women’s premier craft beer organization in the country, was the brainchild of Kelly Lohrmeyer, YCH’s Regional Sales Manager for the Pacific Region (you can read all about her bright idea here). In 2017, she and YCH CEO Mike Goettl brought the best of YCH’s hop harvest to the annual PBS meeting, which is held every year at the Great American Beer Festival. With the goal of creating a blend that gives back to women in the brewing industry, YCH’s first hop rub session involved only a few key PBS members.

Two years later, Lohrmeyer stood in front of a packed room in the brewhouse at Blue Moon Brewing Co. in Denver, Colorado. Women brewers, marketing managers, brand ambassadors, quality assurance analysts, and many other industry professionals stood ready to get their hands (and noses) dirty, with the intention of selecting the blend for 2020. One of these women was Sarah Jagiela, the Events and Marketing Coordinator at Sly Fox Brewing in Pottstown, Pennsylvania.

“This is such an awesome experience to get to know other women in the industry and to have a support system,” said Jagiela, who was participating in the sensory hop experience for the first time. “The dudes at our brewery are great, but I’m excited to meet a bunch of badass women.”

The hop selection process is a not only a great time for women in the brewing industry to come together, but it’s also the PBS’s best fundraising opportunity of the year. With $3 from each pound sold donated directly to PBS, the YCH Pink Boots Blend raised $40,000 in donations its inaugural year and doubled in 2019, collecting more than $100,000 that went toward 25 different PBS scholarships. For reference, the organization had only six scholarships available in 2013.

“This night blows all our other fundraising efforts out of the water,” said Cat Wiest, PBS Board Member and Research and Development Brewer at Pelican Brewing Co. in Pacific City, Oregon. “[The hop blend] is helping to spread our mission and get more people involved… and excited about our scholarship program. It’s a huge game changer. We’re really lucky to have partnerships with YCH take us to the next level.”

In 2019, over 346 breweries in 13 different countries participated in March’s Pink Boots Brew Day, an occasion celebrated in collaboration with International Women’s Day where women employees in a brewery come together to brew a special beer specifically using the Pink Boots Blend.

Breweries like Uinta in Salt Lake City, Utah, joined 11 other Utah breweries in 2018 to make the “On Wednesdays We Wear Pink Boots,” a cold session IPA. Uinta brewer Lauren Lerch, who participated in that brew, was in attendance at the Blue Moon gathering in Denver for her second hop rub selection. She’d come specifically to research hops and to get ideas for beers Utah breweries could make with the YCH Pink Boots Blend in 2020.

“It’s like Christmas or a ribbon cutting,” said Lerch. “You just go and start smelling and rubbing hops. It’s very exciting.”

Wiest agreed that the actual hands-on opportunity is not only thrilling, but also educationally invaluable.

“A lot of women at this meeting don’t have an opportunity to get their hands on these materials during the year,” she said. “Once we do, it’s tricky and challenging. My boss might say this smells like diesel — to me, it smells like grass or cardboard.”

As I dove head and hands first into 12 different hops, the differences in aroma, opinion, and approaches became immediately apparent.

“You get some Juniper out of this one,” Lerch said as she shoved a Comet hop close to her nostrils.

“I’m thinking melon,” said Amy Spackman, Beer Ambassador at Karl Strauss in San Diego, California, and Chapter Leader of the PBS San Diego Chapter.

And yet, while many of the women disagreed on sensory, they all agreed on the importance of education.

“This is such a non-pretentious way to learn,” said Spackman. “Everyone communicates their own sensory notes. It empowers you. If you don’t know how to say what you’re smelling, other people and YCH can help educate you.”

Wiest agreed, saying, “Education is how we create opportunities for ourselves. We advance all of us through education. If one of us is successful, then all of us are successful.”

Around the room, barriers broke as groups of women huddled around the hop tables, backs bent as if they were looking through a microscope. As I took notes on my Yakima Chief Hops notepad, I caught snippets of conversation.

“I’ve got hops up my nose.”

”I have it on good authority that Sabro™ will be sexier than Mosaic® this year.”

”My hands are so dank right now.”

Undeniably, an energy had filled Blue Moon’s brewhouse.

“I’m excited about all the women here getting to have a vote,” said Teri Fahrendorf, the Founder of the Pink Boots Society. “It’s collaborative. That’s always my favorite part.”

After 10 minutes of sniffing, rubbing, and conversing, we were ready to narrow down the field of a dozen hops to the top nine choices. With the votes in, Wiest announced the current leaders.

“I should have downloaded a drumroll app,” said Wiest, as she began to read.

HBC 472… 27 votes
Ahtanum® (“a personal favorite that I have no idea how to pronounce,” joked Wiest)
Idaho Gem™… 29 votes
Palisade® (“yahhhh” went up from one person in the crowd)
El Dorado®… 29 votes
And with the most votes… Loral®, which earned a whopping 33 votes and was a winner for the third year in a row.

With the hop field narrowed to below ten, the real fun began.

“Marry some hops together,” Wiest yelled over her microphone.

With cups in hand, everyone in attendance blended, shook, smelled, and penciled in percentages, essentially coming up with their own special hop recipe. A smidgen of El Dorado® and a dash of Loral® were thrown into one cup, while two parts Idaho Gem™ combined with one part Azacca® in another. Like four-year-olds with an Easy Bake Oven, we all concocted our blend with the goal of landing the winning recipe, which would be scaled up by YCH and turned into T-90 pellets for the official 2020 Pink Boots Hop Blend. (You can already pre-order the blend here! YCH is encouraging all brewers to submit a presale order for the blend by December 15th to ensure it is shipped and received in time to brew on International Women’s Day on March 8th).

With the allure of earning the recognition of hop blender extraordinaire, I gave a final sniff to all nine hops on the table. My magic recipe had no precise measurements or quantities. Instead, I relied on my naive skills and innate sense of smell. I clutched my cup of Palisade®, Loral®, HBC 472, Idaho Gem™, and El Dorado® to my chest and blew on it for good luck as Lohrmeyer wrote a large #6 on the side in blue Sharpie, placing it on the final judging table. I stepped back and crossed my fingers as everyone in the room placed a bottle cap in a cup next to the concoction they enjoyed the most.

I only ended up with one.

The winning combination featured an absolutely awesome blend of two parts Loral®, one part Azacca®, one part El Dorado®, and two parts Idaho Gem™, and was created by a trio of mad scientists and Colorado PBS friends: Gates Minis (Inventory Specialist at Woods Boss Brewing in Denver, CO), Barbara McDonald (QA Analyst and Assistant Brewer at Dean & Co. Craft Brewery in La Junta, CO), and Mandie Hardison (Lead Brewer at Mother Trucker Brewery in Thornton, CO).

Working in tandem, the trio used their individual skills in the brewhouse and a little common sense to draft their recipe.

“Loral® has made the blend three years in a row, so DUH [we chose that one]…,” said McDonald. When one person couldn’t decide on a hop, they’d split it up and decide cohesively. “We all know each other and we came out to support.”

The friends even came up with a name for their champion compound. Simply called GBMS, it’s an anagram of their names that also stands for Great Beer Made Simple.

“It’s hard to do this on your own,” said Minis. “I’m not a brewer, so working with someone else that’s familiar with the hops really helped. That’s the whole idea behind the Pink Boots Society, right? It’s a collaborative process.”

The victorious hop blend fittingly embodied the spirit of YCH and PBS’s relationship in one tiny cup. By collaborating, Minis, McDonald, and Hardison created something that will see life around the world. Although the packet of T-90 pellets will travel far from YCH’s fields in Oregon, the 2020 Pink Boots Blend started in the back room of a brewery with a bunch of women bent over two long rows of tables, sniffing, conversing, learning, laughing, and maybe leaving the room with their eyes a little wider and their hands a little greener.

Remember to pre-order this year’s Yakima Chief Hops Pink Boots Blend before December 15th to ensure it is shipped and received in time to brew on International Women’s Day on March 8th!

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