Please welcome Phil Runco back to DC Beer!
John Segal hated the name.
“Why don’t you just call the hop Shit?” the Segal Ranch owner quipped, mildly indignant. “Because, as far as I’m concerned, there’s shit and then the next smelliest thing is an anchovy.”
It was mid-September, the height of harvest season in Washington’s Yakima Valley, the epicenter of North American hop production. Segal and his ranch manager Martin Ramos were standing around a chintzy white picnic table littered with clear plastic bags of freshly picked hops. These hops, experimental varietals bred by Ramos, had been presented for sensory analysis to two guests – the founders of a new, then-unopened brewery called Fast Fashion.
One was Matt Storm, owner of The Masonry, a pizzeria and beer bar with two locations in Seattle. The other was Brian Strumke, the Baltimore native best known for his nomadic beer project Stillwater Artisanal. Segal’s ire fell primarily upon the latter.
Moments earlier, everything had been copacetic. Strumke had brought Storm to the Grandview farm, three hours southeast of Seattle, to “rub” an experimental hop he first encountered there in 2018. Time had passed, but Strumke hadn’t forgotten about the cultivar’s distinctive expression – an unmistakable watermelon hard candy character, backed by subtler notes of pine. Now, two years later, those qualities remained just as vibrant. The Fast Fashion founders gushed.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t as if the brewery could just place an order for the hop, then known within Segal Ranch by the name 24B-05. There wasn’t much more 24B-05 in existence than a trash bag full of whole cones. That’s how much a single hill of the crop had yielded that year. But Segal had a pitch prepared for his audience. “You know, we’re at the point where we’re having breweries sponsor hops,” he told Strumke and Storm. “You sponsor an acre, you get all the hops off the land, and then you can do whatever you want with them. They’re your hops.”
The two sides cut a deal right there on the lawn.
“The beers they’ve made with the hop have been great, and they’ve been selling. So, what the hell do I know? We’re not marketers. We’re just hop growers.”John Segal
But Strumke had one stipulation. He wanted to give 24B-05 a new name: Anchovy. Segal thought Strumke was joking. “No, I’m fucking serious,” the Stillwater mastermind told him. “We have to call it Anchovy.” That’s when Segal suggested calling it Shit. Strumke was undeterred, though. The unusualness of the name was the attraction. “What brewer is not going to rub a hop called Anchovy?” he retorted. “What consumer is not going to want to drink a beer with hops called Anchovy?” Segal was flabbergasted. He had no counter. “Brian, this is your hop,” the Segal Ranch owner said. “You can name it whatever the fuck you want.”
As Strumke’s friend and business partner, Storm was not surprised by the sudden turn of events. “Brian can be very persuasive,” he observes. He can also be very serious about something seemingly very silly.
Sure enough, one year later, Segal Ranch harvested an acre of 24B-05. Fast Fashion would take possession of the entire yield – some 900 or so pounds of pelletized hops – and begin employing it in irreverently named IPAs like Cownterbeer, Trippy Lifting, and Fast Fashion Got a Forklift. And it would present 24B-05 to the public as “our beloved experimental hop… Anchovy.”
At the same time, Storm and Strumke sought to generate interest in Anchovy – and, by extension, Fast Fashion – by sending the hop to influential industry friends across the Northern Hemisphere, like San Francisco’s Cellarmaker, Manchester’s Cloudwater, Oklahoma’s American Solera, and Southern California’s Monkish. Those breweries, in turn, fully wrapped their arms around the varietal’s piscine name with hop-forward beers called Fast Fishin’, Press Button for Anchovy, Extra Anchovy, and Fresh Tin.
Storm and Strumke even had cardboard cartons produced specifically for Anchovy. The boxes, each sized to hold an 11-pound bag, were decorated with cartoon ocean waves and a more realistic drawing of the cultivar’s titular fish. “Fast Fashion is really running with this,” observes Segal. “The beers they’ve made with the hop have been great, and they’ve been selling. So, what the hell do I know? We’re not marketers. We’re just hop growers.”
Hop cultivation is more than “just” a commercial endeavor for Segal – it’s the family vocation. And the story of Segal Ranch is one that traces the history of modern hop cultivation in America. To wit, last summer marked the eightieth consecutive year that a Segal farm had been reaped for humulus lupulus.
The first of those harvests occurred not far from the Canadian border in Malone, New York, where Segal’s grandfather George owned a hundred acres of land. Prior to opening that farm in 1941, George had familiarized himself with the business of hops as a sales manager for a hop brokerage firm, selling small hop packets to mom-and-pop grocery shops in New York City during Prohibition. (These hops were sold winkingly for medicinal purposes, with enterprising homebrewers aware that malt extract could be procured from largely idled local breweries.) The end of the Noble Experiment, followed by the decimation of European hop production during World War II, would create a hunger for domestic hops that George was well positioned to satiate. In the face of growing demand, George bought another hundred acres on the other side of the country in Grandview.
Stewardship of this bicoastal operation passed to George’s son John Segal Sr. following the patriarch’s sudden death in 1950. Another dramatic change would come in 1959, when the family closed its New York farm. Like most hop farms in the state, Segal Ranch had been devastated by a mildewed blight, and the government’s recommended solution for combating that fungus – the insecticide heptachlor – had the not-so-minor side effect of rendering the land toxic to hop DNA. So, John Sr. packed up all of the family’s New York trellises and poles and brought them to the Yakima Valley.
Segal Ranch entered the 1960s specializing in the cultivation of bittering hops like Brewers Gold and Bullion. This was not uncommon for U.S. growers at the time – aroma hops were considered the province of Europe. But John Sr. and a coterie of friends were unconvinced that the North America had to cede such authority to the other side of the Atlantic.
One of those friends happened to be Chuck Zimmerman, a USDA scientist working eight miles away in Prosser, Washington. Zimmerman was at the forefront of breeding expressive hop varietals that would reflect – and, unlike imported German and English bines, plainly survive in – Pacific Northwest soil. His decades of work in the public sector and then later commercially would result in the propagation of classic American varietals like Centennial, Columbus, and Chinook, among others.
It was at Zimmerman’s Prosser research station in the late 1960s that John Sr. rubbed an experimental varietal bred from the English Fuggle hop and a Russian cultivar called Serebrianka. It had been assigned the number 56013. John Sr. fell in love with the hop, and with initial support from the Coors Brewing Company, Segal Ranch became the first farm to commercially cultivate it in 1972. Not long after, John Sr. introduced 56013 to another friend, Fritz Maytag, the owner of Anchor Brewing. By then the hop had a proper name: Cascade. Maytag took it and made Liberty Ale – the first post-prohibition American dry-hopped ale and a progenitor of the modern IPA.
Cascade would change American craft beer, and it would be a boon for Segal Ranch. For the next 35 years, the farm primarily grew that varietal, along with the more reserved aroma hop Willamette. And it sold those two hops directly to primarily two customers: Anchor and Anheuser-Busch. The younger John Segal, fresh off a one-year post-collegiate stint packaging and leading tours at Anchor, joined the family business in the mid-1980s. But he exited the industry altogether just a half decade later. As he explains, there was only so much business development to be done in an American landscape of just over 40 functioning brewing companies.
Segal encountered a much different ecosystem, one flush with craft breweries, when he returned to Segal Ranch in 2009. Sadly, the farm was in dire straits. Following InBev’s acquisition of Anheuser-Busch the year prior, the freshly formed conglomerate had opted to stop purchasing hops directly from farms. With that decision, Segal Ranch’s largest source of revenue evaporated. Segal, who had taken the reins of the company following his father’s death, knew the business had to adapt to survive. “We were struggling,” he remembers. “We went from 450 acres of production down to 83. We basically had weeds and GMO corn growing in the trellis.”
From an operational standpoint, Segal Ranch was always a bit of an oddity. Most hop farms sold the entirety of their harvests to hop brokers, like Yakima Chief Hops or Haas or BSG Hops, who then offered those hops to breweries around the country. Segal Ranch had always circumvented these intermediaries. Segal Jr. wasn’t inclined to change that.
Leverging the farm’s relationship with Anchor, he reached out to Lagunitas founder Tony Magee. At a Michigan Brewers Guild meeting, he chatted up Alec Mull, Director of Brewing Operations for Founders. He befriended Russian River owners Vinnie and Natalie Cilurzo. Segal sold these breweries the legacy of Segal Ranch, and the quality of its hops kept them customers. It didn’t hurt that an industry-wide hop shortage had his crop in high demand, either. “A lot of our relationships that have become very big partnerships over the years happened very innocently,” Segal explains. “I’d pick up the phone and speak directly to a brewmaster or head brewer, and we’d develop a relationship when their breweries were small, and then those relationships would grow. That’s been my little mark on the business – building those direct relationships, inviting breweries out to the farm, having them rub hops and learn about what we do.”
Today, Segal Ranch’s “partner” breweries include major players like Allagash, Industrial Arts, and New Glarus. Anheuser-Busch has also returned to the fold, some of its newer subsidiary brands in tow. Segal Ranch provides for these breweries and more through the cultivation of 470 acres. It’s a big number, to be sure, but Segal says it’s roughly half the size of the average hop farm. “We’ve always been a very small estate grower,” he says. “We’re known for growing wonderful, quality hops, but there’s only so much poundage that we can grow.”
Thirteen years after scrambling to revitalize the family business, Segal is now in the fortunate position of picking who gets access to Segal Ranch’s hops. “John is one of the most trusted hop growers in Yakima,” says Strumke. “And he mostly sells to the big boys, so they’ve been booked up for years.”
The overwhelming majority of Segal Ranch’s hops are USDA-bred, public-domain varietals, which, in contrast with proprietary hops like Citra and Mosaic, can be freely grown and sold to anyone. Centennial is particularly popular, though the farm also grows other modern classic American hops (like Chinook, Comet, and Cluster) and the newer cultivar Cashmere. The exact composition of its inventory changes every year. For the past three, Segal Ranch has harvested an acre of the USDA’s experimental hop 2006009-074 as part of cultivar’s trial. Officially released and branded as Vista at the end of 2021, the hop will emerge from four acres of Segal Ranch soil this fall. If its popularity takes off with brewers, perhaps more will be planted in 2023.
Still, fifty years after Segal Ranch became the first grower to commercially plant Cascade, the herbaceous and grapefruity hop remains its calling card. The farm’s cultivation of the hop is patient and methodical. Segal likens it to how a vintner approaches grapes, allowing them to fatten on the vine while periodically testing their brix sugar levels. Likewise, as Segal Ranch approaches a harvest, it analyzes the Cascade crop’s oil content. If they need an extra few days – or even another week – in the field to optimize the oil content, then that’s what they get. While crops vary year to year, the result is typically oil-saturated Cascade. So, for the last decade Segal Ranch has sought to draw attention to this by selling its Cascade as “High-Oil Cascade.”
“I’ve had Cascades where I ripped the cone in half and stuck it onto my hand and then flipped it over and the cone would stick to the palm of my hand,” Segal says. “Brewers get all excited about that. If you’re interested in dry-hopping, oil content is very important.”
Picking hops later is a luxury of sorts – one that comes with being a smaller hop farm that doesn’t have to maintain an uncompromising schedule in order to harvest and kiln 2,000 acres. Of course, Segal Ranch has maintained its size because of the flexibility it provides. “Cellarmaker has a ton of respect for John Segal and Martin Ramos” says Tim Sciascia, a co-founder and the Director of Brewing Operations for the San Francisco brewery. “Their hops are legendary in the brewing industry — as they should be when such care and attention is given to a purposefully small farm. We’ve been lucky enough to brew with their ‘high oil’ Cascade, which smells like no other Cascade we have encountered.” Beyond its public-domain hops, Segal Ranch currently dedicates 70 acres to growing proprietary varietals for Yakima Chief Hops. And then there is the farm’s experimental program.
Hop breeding at Segal Ranch is the domain of Ramos, the man once dubbed “the hop whisperer” by Russian River’s Vinnie Cilurzo. A 27-year veteran of the farm, he was trained by Chuck Zimmerman during the scientist’s tenure at Hop Union. Ramos initiated Segal Ranch’s five-acre nursery as part of its initial decades-long relationship with Anheuser-Busch. After the InBev acquisition, Segal Ranch soldiered on with the initiative. Ramos continued collecting seeds, breeding in the farm’s greenhouse, and planting single “hills” of experimental hops. But rather than present these varietals to one brewery, Segal Ranch puts them in front of the 40 or so breweries passing through the property for hop selection each harvest. Ramos and Segal soak up whatever feedback these brewers have to offer. And maybe one of those breweries want to sponsor an acre or two of an experimental hop. “Martin is working his magic, and I think we have some hops that really have potential,” says Segal. “Every year is a new chapter.”
The appraisal of experimental hops is highly subjective. Every brewer brings their own sensory perspective and preferences to a rubbing session. Sometimes only one brewer will recognize the potential in a varietal. Famously, in the late 1990s, Vinnie Cilurzo grew enamored with the experimental hop YCR014, subsequently dubbed Simcoe, which at the time lacked practically any demand and had been relegated to just three total acres. Then Russian River put Simcoe at the center of a new IPA called Pliny the Elder. Two decades later, Simcoe is one of the five most-grown hops in Washington. And without Cilurzo’s interest, it likely would have gone out of production.
At Segal Ranch more recently, breweries passed on the farm’s experimental varietal 7272 for six years before one operation latched onto it. Now, there are five acres of 7272 in the ground. (7272 isn’t an experimental number. The hop is named in honor of Segal’s father, whose favorite number was 72.)
It didn’t take six years for Strumke to smell the appeal of 24B-05. He was struck by the hop on his first trip to Segal Ranch in 2018. Visiting the farm with the founders of Other Half, Monkish, and Burial – “the haze bro masters of the universe,” Strumke jokes – he and his companions rubbed the experimental varietals presented by Segal and Ramos. 24B-05 immediately jumped out to the Stillwater founder. He had never smelled anything like it. But he didn’t want to signal that excitement to his cohort. They were friends, yes, but in Yakima, they were also competitors. “We walked out of the room, and I just kept quiet,” Strumke recalls. “I thought, ‘I’m gonna get that hop.’” When Strumke returned with Storm two years later, he challenged his Fast Fashion partner to find 24B-05 based solely on how he remembered and described it.
“I told Matt, ‘If you can pinpoint the hop that smells like watermelon Jolly Rancher and pine, then we should sponsor it,” says Strumke. “We went through the hops, and sure enough he was like, ‘Dude, I think this is the one. It’s exactly what you said.’ And he hit the nail on the head. Matt and I may have different personalities – I’m East Coast, he’s totally Pacific Northwest – but our palates and our thinking are very in line.”
Born and bred in Seattle, Storm opened the original The Masonry in the city’s Lower Queen Anne neighborhood during the summer of 2013. A hip, cozy, 40-seat pizza joint, The Masonry quickly became known for its spicy meatballs and an impeccably curated selection of beer. Storm had previously worked at venerated Washington bottle shop Malt & Vine, and his reputation preceded him. “You knew there would be good beer,” the Seattle Times wrote. “And it doesn’t disappoint.”
“Matt is one of the most down-to-earth people I know,” say Tim Liu, Assistant Beer Director for Neighborhood Restaurant Group, which includes beer bar ChurchKey and the brewery Bluejacket. “His friend circle includes some of the most famous brewers in the industry, but he treats everyone like you’re one of the crew. The Masonry takes on that same persona: They serve some of the best beers in the world, but at its heart it’s just a comforting place to get a beer and pizza.”
In November 2017, Storm opened another, significantly larger Masonry at the top of Lake Union. Situated in a new Fremont development, this location boasts high ceilings and is flooded with natural light from the tall, retractable windows that encase it. It feels, by comparison, refined and bubbly.
As in DC, Washington allows bars and bottle shops to self-import beer from around the country so long as they’re willing to pay a modest tax. This allowed Storm to occasionally bring in kegs from buzzy IPA mavens (like Other Half, Highland Park, and Monkish) while also maintaining a robust selection of more esoteric mixed-fermentation bottles from his other favorite breweries (like Jester King, Oxbow, and again Monkish). Such curation did not always come easily. “Matt was just hardcore,” says Strumke. “He would like literally drive to the East Coast and pick up beer from Tired Hands and all over the place and then drive it back. He was just one of those obsessive publicans.”
Apropos with the Masonry’s penchant for funky saison, each spring since 2015 Storm has organized the Masonry’s Farmhouse Fest – a showcase of Belgian-style ales that has become a beloved annual gathering within the brewing community.
“We were COVID buddies,” says Strumke. “We’d just hang at the Masonry in Queen Anne and drink beers, and I’d smoke joints. There wasn’t much else going on. Matt has a family, so we were being safe and not really spending time with many other people.”
Stillwater sent beer to Farmhouse Fest on several occasions, but Strumke and Storm only briefly crossed paths during the Masonry’s first half decade. The two began to build a more tangible friendship after Strumke moved from New York City to Seattle in 2018. The Masonry held a Stillwater event to welcome his arrival, and then Strumke kept coming back for the pizza (“best in the city”) and beer (“my favorite selection”). The relationship truly took root in the early months of the pandemic. As with the years that preceded it, Strumke had spent much of 2019 on the road – brewing in South America, attending to business in New York City, promoting Stillwater projects in the UK, and pouring at a festival in China. COVID-19 brought that vagabond lifestyle to a halt. Stuck in Seattle, Strumke found companionship in Storm.
“We were COVID buddies,” says Strumke. “We’d just hang at the Masonry in Queen Anne and drink beers, and I’d smoke joints. There wasn’t much else going on. Matt has a family, so we were being safe and not really spending time with many other people.”
Strumke and Storm had a lot to talk about. Each found themself at a crossroads. In Stillwater’s tenth year, Strumke was struggling to adapt the company’s business model to a rapidly evolving craft beer landscape. As he saw it, Stillwater was now competing with breweries that could consistently develop a new beer concept and sell it directly to consumers within three weeks. Strumke felt as if his ideas took four or five times as long to reach their audience. There was a bottleneck scheduling brews, he and artist Mike Van Hall were often butting heads on label designs, and cans took too long to travel through his distribution network – a big problem with fragile IPAs that have a limited window to shine brightest. His relationship was also souring with longtime partner and distributor 12 Percent, who he relied on to market and sell his product. 12 Percent had built a brewery in Connecticut and signed over a dozen new nomadic beer projects – brands that sometimes bore resemblance to Stillwater and thus, as Strumke saw it, put him in competition with himself. “I knew I needed to reinvent Stillwater,” says Strumke. “I was treading water in a changing tide.”
Storm, meanwhile, had already spent years questioning the long-term viability of his chosen business model: the beer bar. “I have been of the opinion for a while that beer bars are dying,” he told The New School last March. “People don’t seem to see the value in especially what I do, like a very highly curated list. It’s a bunch of beers that people haven’t heard of that are really expensive. I just don’t think the market is really there anymore.” The Masonry owner was lamenting this observation to a few industry friends in late 2018 when they posited a solution: make your own hazy IPA. It sells a lot easier, with much higher margins, than, say, a 750mL bottle of barrel-fermented wild grisette, however exquisite that might be. “There isn’t anything much better than finding a beer bar that can really expand your mind, but I also don’t find any point in fighting reality,” says Storm. “If people really prefer to go direct-to-producer at this point, then it just seemed to be time for us to start producing ourselves.”
Storm did his research on fermentation tanks and canning lines. He reached out to Snoqualmie’s No Boat Brewing, a brewery 30 minutes east of Seattle and down the road from the Great Northern Hotel of “Twin Peaks” fame (actual name: Salish Lodge & Spa). The two sides hammered out a tentative agreement for an alternating proprietorship. Rather than open his own brewery, Storm could brew on No Boat’s system, then move the liquid to his fermenters and eventually run it through his canning line – all of which would be housed at No Boat.
As someone who has made beer in dozens of breweries around the world, Strumke would prove a valuable resource to this planning. “Obviously, I picked Brian’s brain a lot,” says Storm. “My background was in serving beer and cooking. My background wasn’t in brewing.” Storm’s intention was to hire a brewer, either from the area or beyond, to help him get the project off the ground. Finding the right one proved elusive, though. Storm also fretted over how he would strike the right balance in creative control. But as the pandemic stretched on and Strumke remained grounded in Seattle, the two realized the answer might be right in front of them.
“That’s when I was like, “You know what? You and I can do this. I have at least six months tied down. You and I can make IPA, I promise you,’” Strumke recalls. “I knew Matt had all the capabilities of being what he thought he wanted to be, which was a brewer and a brewery owner – basically a recording artist in today’s world.”
It was a perfect fit. Strumke possessed a wealth of brewing knowledge. He had well-cultivated relationships with hop purveyors and maltsers. He raised the visibility of the project. He was exceedingly comfortable as a face of the brand – someone who would have no qualms being pictured on a can label, whether smirkingly holding a hard seltzer how-to or deadpan atop a forklifted pallet. Simultaneously, he had no desire to make the brewery his project. Stillwater was and would remain overwhelmingly Strumke’s focus. “I always wanted this to be Matt’s project,” he shares. “I wanted my first protégé, I guess. I wanted to nurture somebody and watch them take my information and turn it into something unique and original.”
Strumke honed his approach to IPA in the latter half of Stillwater’s first decade. This followed an inaugural five-year stretch where he didn’t produce a single IPA. According to the brewer, that inactivity wasn’t on account of any particular allegiance to the cross-pollinated saisons and wild ales that brought Stillwater early acclaim. “I thought IPA wouldn’t work for Stillwater because it wouldn’t be fresh – the distribution model didn’t work,” Strumke remembers. “And this was back when IPAs were West Coast and sturdy. They held up better. When I started making hazy IPA, I thought, ‘This is the most volatile beer you can make, and I’ve got wider distribution than ever, and now I’m fucking doing this?”
The initial wave of Stillwater IPAs – offerings like Stereo, Nu Tropic, and Superhop – were clean, bright, and fruit forward. Then, during the brand’s Modern Confusion, they got smoother, juicier, creamier, hoppier – very much in line with the times. By 2019, when Stillwater introduced the Authorization Data series and the Shelfie Set, Strumke felt he had mastered the so-called New England IPA. These lush, hop-saturated brews performed well for Stillwater, but Strumke didn’t believe a focus on hazy IPA was sustainable. In addition to lingering concerns about the lag time between an IPA’s production and its final destination, he could sense a growing divide between how many craft beer consumers viewed IPA sold direct-to-consumer by trendy breweries (often using “drop culture” strategies) and four-packs readily available on bottle shop shelves. With art that featured everyday grocery store items, the Shelfie Set was a self-deprecating play on the beer nerd’s regard – or, rather, disregard – for “shelfie” IPAs. “Stillwater had lost the attention of the people that care about that stuff,” Stumke says. “I could feel it.”
With New Sensation and Smoking Buddies in 2020, Stillwater began distancing itself from American hazy IPA, typically fermented with British ale yeast, to a take on the “International Pale Ale” with the Norwegian farmhouse strain kveik. The project with Storm, meanwhile, would provide a home for the Stillwater IPA recipes and processes that culminated in the Shelfie Set. The hops would change and the malt bills would be tweaked, but “the formula,” as Strumke puts it, would remain intact. “When Brian jumped in, it was like, ‘Well, we could actually make this work,’” says Storm. “Before then, nothing was concrete. That was really the beginning of it.”
The same day that this plan coalesced, Strumke proposed calling the project Fast Fashion – a name he had previously used for a Stillwater IPA first released two years earlier. Fast fashion clothing is designed to be trendy but disposable. It is not constructed to last. It does not pretend to be more than a temporary response to market desires. This is how Strumke viewed hazy IPA. Storm loved it. “I thought it was way too funny,” he says. “I was pretty thrilled when he said we could use it.”
Storm had another metaphor for hazy IPA: pizza. When you start a pizzeria, you develop a good base, and then you just change the toppings. When you start a hazy IPA brewery, you develop a good base, and then you change your hopping. This was the inspiration for Fast Fashion’s first beer, Hot Pizza.
But Storm more sincerely draws on pizza again when discussing the importance of quality ingredients. “We brought to Fast Fashion a lot of the mentality that I had in pizza making,” he shares. “If you buy nice shit and put care into making something with it, then the product tends to be above average. It doesn’t mean you’re going to put out great product, but it sure helps.”
While pandemic-related supply chain disruptions, rising temperatures, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine are all having negative effects on the price and availability of barley, premium malt has not been an input that has historically (in recent decades, at least) been unavailable to those willing to spend a little more. Hops are different.
Following the shortage of the mid-to-late 2000s, the U.S. hop industry was able to regain its footing and, by 2016, had far surpassed previous levels of production. In more recent years, hops particularly popular in modern IPAs, like Citra and Mosaic, have become easier and easier to source as more farms choose to grow them. But hops are an agricultural product, subject to variance in their aromatic and flavor characteristics depending on the terroir and climate in which they were grown. Quality can vary farm to farm. It can also vary lot to lot within a farm. Such deviations can have profound impacts in IPAs sopping with hop character. “It’s really not as simple as get the coolest hop and throw it in a beer,” Storm explains. “It’s not just about the varietal, it’s about the quality of that varietal. It can be night and day. You’ll have some Citra that smells amazing, and you’ll have some that smells like dirt and garlic. You have to really make sure that you’re getting the quality hops of the varietal you want.”
The surest way to guarantee premier hops is to select them yourself. This why breweries fly to the Yakima Valley at the end of each summer. It’s more than a photo op, it’s the chance to skim the cream of the crop. Unfortunately, it’s not a ritual in which most American breweries get to participate. Access is generally limited to breweries that purchase large quantities of hops or are extraordinarily well-connected. If you’re on the outside of hop selection, you’re typically receiving hops from a broker, where quality is more likely to be hit or miss. And, frankly, you’re likely drawing from lots that have passed over by insider breweries.
As a brewery that had yet to make a beer, Fast Fashion was not in a position to select hops in 2020. But both Storm and Strumke had sizable networks of other breweries they could rely on to sell Fast Fashion excess hops. “We were able to reach out to a lot of friends in the industry and get access to some really nice hops that were selected by people whose palates aligned with ours,” says Storm. “That was a huge, huge advantage for us – knowing from the get-go that hop access was taken care of. Between the two of us, we really have not struggled to find access to any quality hops we want.”
Quality hops would be employed generously in Fast Fashion’s first year and a half. Of the brewery’s first forty-eight beers, forty-three have been some iteration of an IPA. Such production tracks precisely with its co-founders’ intentions for the project. They saw an opportunity in the Seattle area for a brewery that specialized in hop-forward ales, could jump immediately into canning, and would commit to creating clever concepts and label designs every release. All three were equally vital to the plan.
From the beginning, though, Strumke believed that, as an IPA brewery entering an otherwise crowded market, Fast Fashion needed another way to differentiate itself. As the project headed into the 2020 hop harvest, it dawned on him: Segal Ranch and its 24B-05 might be the thing. Everyone has Citra and Nelson Sauvin and Galaxy. How many breweries have their own hop?
So, Strumke called up Segal Ranch. He and Storm dropped by to rub some hops. And they committed to purchasing however much 24B-05 an acre would yield. After all, how could they have a Hot Pizza IPA without Anchovy? Yet it wasn’t a decision without risk. No one can be sure how fledgling hop will scale up in its first year of proper cultivation. “We have to take all of it whether it’s good or bad,” Strumke told me last summer. “I think that’s a worthwhile gamble.”
The risk was mitigated by the cost effectiveness of the proposition. An acre would cost Fast Fashion somewhere between $8,000 and $10,000. That works out to about $7 per pound of Anchovy – about 40% less than other prized aroma hops. “When they told us how cheap it was, it was just kind of like, ‘Even if it turns into a shitty hop, it’s just kind of fun,” says Storm. “We would have our own hop.”
To the relief of Fast Fashion’s co-founders, the 2021 yield of Anchovy is not, indeed, shitty. Over the course of six months and six IPAs, Fast Fashion has had ample opportunity to get up close and personal with this harvest of their proprietary cultivar. “We’ve really been able to see what Anchovy does,” Storm continues. “You get that huge aroma of candied watermelon, but there’s also a nice grapefruit pith – like, a cut of Yakima West Coast citrusness.” Storm calls it a delicate hop, one that he’s comfortable using at “pretty high volumes.” Anchovy plays well with others. “There are some hops that want to fight to the front of the line,” he observes. “Nelson [Sauvin] can be like that. Sabro certainly can be like that. You can have a beer that is 10% Sabro, and you taste it and it’s like, ‘Well, there’s Sabro in that beer.’ Anchovy doesn’t have those sharp edges, which makes me less fearful to use it. It makes me less fearful to send it out to friends. You know, I didn’t want to end up with a hop that I had to beg people to try.”
To date, Fast Fashion has gifted Anchovy to a little less than ten breweries, most of whom have already released their hoppy ales showcasing the varietal. Storm characterizes the feedback from those breweries as positive. “Despite the provocative name, Anchovy is a soft and lovely hop that has some pleasant Juicy Fruit Gum aromas backed by hints of mango and lime,” shares Cellarmaker’s Sciascia. “It’s a great hop to add color to an IPA or use as a single hop in a pale ale.”
In the Northeast corridor, the only brewery to get their hands on Anchovy is Silver Spring, Maryland’s Astro Lab, who incorporated it into the IPA Candy Jail, which, full disclosure, I was a collaborator on. With just 900 pounds ever in existence, there’s only so much to go around. “Opening a bag of Anchovy, the candied watermelon really smacks you in the face,” says Astro Lab head brewer and co-founder Matt Cronin. “It’s identifiable even when combined with assertive hops like Nelson Sauvin and Motueka, and, as those hops fade, it lingers.”
“It’s good to see other people using it,” says Storm. “At the end of the day. I really only know how to brew to my palate. An IPA is always going to be pushed towards what I consider my finish line. So, I’m excited to see how people use it with their palates, because they’re going to make with all their micro adjustments and get it to where they want the beer to finish, and I think that’s ultimately tell us more about the hop.”
Sending Anchovy to other breweries is thus partly crowd-sourced R&D. Like any collaboration, it’s also a cross-branding exercise. “We’re using it mostly as a marketing tool,” says Strumke. “Fuck doing a collab — just use our hops and tag Fast Fashion. What’s a collab even mean when we’re making a double IPA? We’ll just send some hops to our friends. That’s the flex.”
Relentlessly optimistic, the Stillwater founder has high hopes for his discovery. “The hop is super dope,” he says. “I told John, ‘I want to make this the next Citra – something worth really ramping up production.’ We’re in this for the long haul.”
From Segal’s perspective, Fast Fashion’s hustle to promote Anchovy presents nothing but upside. A year and a half ago, only a handful of people knew 24B-05 existed. Now the farm is fielding calls from breweries around the country looking to procure it. Until the 2023 harvest, however, all Anchovy that comes out of the ground will belong to Fast Fashion. “I have no idea where Anchovy is going to go,” Segal admits. “We’ve got two acres in the ground, and I think that’s fantastic. Brian is hoping that Anchovy gets bigger and bigger, and he’s a brilliant marketer, so we’ll see what happens. If someone came to us in a year and says, ‘I’d like to buy two pallets of Anchovy,’ then that’s something we could talk about.”
Since Segal and I talked in February, he asked Strumke if he could move the hop to full-scale production in two years. Strumke agreed – but under one condition. Segal Ranch had to keep the name Anchovy.
While the new varietal is unlikely to rise to Citra heights, more modest success would still be a win for Strumke and Storm. If the name does stick, their brewery would still be associated with the hop, even after Fast Fashion no longer controls the supply. The proselytization of Anchovy also curries favor with Segal Ranch. And, as we’ve established, access is everything with hops. “Chinook, Columbus, Centennial, Cascade – those are the hops that I need,” says Strumke. “I need the best of them, and Segal Ranch has got it. I told John, ‘Stillwater could be one of the biggest craft breweries in Washington.’”
Stillwater officially became a Washington beer project in March. Following over six months of conversation and courtship, Strumke formally entered into a partnership with Talking Cedar, a brewery and distillery located on tribal land in Grand Mound, Washington. Built and owned by the Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis, Talking Cedar is a state-of-the-art facility with a 60-barrel brewhouse, rows of 120-barrel fermenters, multiple foeders, and the largest distillery west of the Mississippi River. Within this $24-million operation, Strumke has begun consolidating all U.S. Stillwater production. “I needed a permanent home for Stillwater,” he says. “Contract brewing and wholesaling have dismal margins. And even the best contract breweries are rarely motivated to give your beer extra love or tank time.”
The partnership – under which Stillwater and Talking Cedar will share costs and split profits – marks the culmination of Strumke’s effort to reinvent Stillwater over the last two years. In April, he also rolled out the initial wave of Stillwater UK offerings, the first Stillwater beers brewed in Europe explicitly for the EU and UK markets. As with the Talking Cedar arrangement, the trio of beverages were the product of an equal partnership, this time with North Brewing of Leeds, England.
Strumke calls this the Stillwater 3.0 era. While awaiting final regulatory approval of the Talking Cedar arrangement, Strumke and the Talking Cedar brew team are piloting test batches of Stillwater classics, many of which have been slightly reimagined. In addition to a trove of fruited wild ales in foeders they have been stockpiling since the end of 2021, these classics will be the opening salvo in Strumke’s effort to reorient Stillwater as a Pacific Northwest producer – one that serves that corner of the country first.
Another component of Stillwater 3.0 is minimalist label art composed by Strumke himself. With support from Baltimore-based designer Michael McNeive, Strumke has taken full control of Stillwater’s aesthetic. No more bottlenecks, he says. No more difficulties articulating his ideas. For the first time, every element of the product is a direct reflection of his vision. Even cult classiques like Extra Dry, Cellar Door, and Stateside Saison have been constructed anew. And he’s already designed the label for a Fast Fashion collaboration called Goldfish – a Brett pale ale dry-hopped with Anchovy.
Strumke credits the launch of Fast Fashion and the Anchovy endeavor for helping fuel his creative streak. “Fast Fashion got my brain lubricated again,” he explains. “I could freely work on it. I wasn’t fully invested in it like I am at Stillwater. Stillwater has so much of a personal element, and, especially with the rebrand, I was trying to be way more calculated about everything. It was stressing me out. And so Fast Fashion was just fun. With Matt, I had somebody else to vibe off of. When I have a good collaborator, magic comes up. I really think our relationship brought the best out of both of us.” “I swear, every time we go out drinking, we’ll come up with five to ten ideas that just make us laugh our asses off,” adds Storm. “We always come away creatively inspired.”
With Strumke focused on propping up production at Talking Cedar, Storm is steering most all aspects of Fast Fashion. Alongside brewer Sean Lindorfer – Fast Fashion’s first hire – he’s still making and packaging beer at No Boat, where Fast Fashion currently has two 20-barrel conical fermenters, two 20-barrel horizontal fermenters, and a 20-barrel brite tank. This infrastructure, along with a new 10-barrel brewhouse fabricated in Portland, will eventually be transferred to Fast Fashion’s production space in Seattle’s industrial SoDo neighborhood. Located in an old Ebbits Field Flannels facility, not far from T-Mobile Park and Lumen Field, this space has been in Fast Fashion’s possession since September. As is often the case with brewery buildout, permitting headaches have slowed its progress, but Storm hopes to be producing beer in SoDo by the end of the summer.
In addition to overseeing that project – and running both Masonry locations – Storm is building out a Fast Fashion tasting room in Lower Queen Anne, around the corner from the original Masonry. While Fast Fashion’s beers have been available on draft and to go at the two Masonry spots, this 2,200-square-feet space would provide a proper showcase for the company, which will have more beer to sell once its churning out kegs in SoDo. “The thought of taking on added retail space is very anxiety-inducing for me, but the opportunity was just way too good to pass up,” Storm shares. “It’s a good, manageable space, where we can sell can serve our beer directly to customers.”
Whenever the tasting room opens, the IPAs being served will reflect Storm’s creative expression. He may have started Fast Fashion as a brewing novice, but he’s since taken control of its IPA program. “Brian very much wrote the original IPA recipes, but, as time has gone on, I’ve gotten very comfortable with IPAs,” he says. “It’s been pretty easy for me to sit there and play with them every week. With other styles, I’m still very much in the dark, so I’m reliant on Brian to write those recipes. And as we venture more into funky beer that Brian and I really appreciate drinking ourselves, I’ll have to lean on him pretty heavily.”
The other day, looking at a fridge full of Fast Fashion beer at the Masonry in Fremont, Strumke found himself getting a little emotional. “I’m really proud of the brand,” he says. “It’s truly a collaboration. I look at Fast Fashion and it’s totally Matt, but I totally see myself in it, too. I told him from the start, ‘This can be done with full integrity and fun creativity.’ And we did it.”
In hop cultivation, Segal explains to me, a varietal’s first year in the ground is called its “baby year.” The yield is about half as large as what can be expected in its second and subsequent mature years. That acre where Anchovy was harvested last summer? Ostensibly that soil will produce twice as much this summer. But this is just a prediction. Segal Ranch won’t know for certain until the hops are plucked from their bines.
In a sense, Fast Fashion is in the midst of its own baby year – albeit one that has gone longer than 365 days. It’s producing IPA at someone else’s brewery, paying the associated additional costs while also dealing with production constraints, then it’s selling that IPA at the Masonry locations and select bottle shops. Who is to say what Fast Fashion will become with its own functional production brewery, where it will have freedom to brew whatever and whenever it wants and then release it to a taproom frequented by a dedicated audience? “Brian and I are both trying to get our projects off the ground,” says Storm. “What Fast Fashion will look like once it and Stillwater are actually up and going and we’re in a more manageable stage of our lives – we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.”