Dataviz and Beer: Creating the Hops Chart

How a personal design project turned into a profitable product

In 2009, I took a Data Visualization class at Parsons School for Design, while simultaneously diving into the world of home brewing beer. As I dug into both of these new explorations, my curiosity for understanding how hops impact the beer recipes I was working on naturally converged with a need to visualize this phenomena.

My curiosity was also piqued by the book Designing Great Beers by Ray Daniels, which took a deep dive into how the acid content in hops established a beer’s bitterness, and how the various oils in hops impact the flavors and aromas of beer when added towards the end of the wort boil. These oil and acid stats would typically be listed on hops packaging, but I really wanted some way to understand hops characteristics in relation to each other. I wanted to understand what exactly I like about my favorite craft beers, find appropriate substitutions when something was out of stock, and most importantly, make more informed choices when designing my own recipes.

Early iterations on the Hops Chart design

The initial version of the design was completed over a couple weeks in 2009, and only included about 40 varieties of hops. I tossed the draft of the design onto some home brewing forums to seek feedback, and was quickly flooded with encouragement, suggestions, and requests for copies of a print whenever it was ready.

With the birth of Type/Code in 2010, client work began taking a priority, and consequently the Hops Chart sat untouched in my side projects folder for about a year. But in early 2011, I finally started poking at it again— updating all the data, and adding several new varieties—bringing the total to 66. As someone who focuses on designing digital experiences, the prospect of creating something physical was somewhat terrifying; there can be no bug-fixes once you have two thousand final pieces sitting in a storage unit. But we finally pulled the trigger and made prints available for purchase in mid 2011, through the aptly name mini-site hopschart.com. Despite the slow release, the international home brewing community was wonderfully supportive throughout the entire process, and they have ended up being the vast majority of our customers. We’ve now shipped the print to brewers and beer enthusiasts in over 30 different countries around the world, and print is sold in over a dozen home brew supply shops.

Creating the 2nd Edition

After 5 years of selling the Hops Chart print, we were long overdue for an update. Several new hop varieties were now readily available, including many international varieties that we couldn’t find data for the first time around. We wanted the new edition to have fully updated data (as hop crops evolve over time), include as many hop varieties as we could get complete data for, and maintain the same physical size as the original print (for existing customers who already had a frame).

The first task required gathering all of the data we could; this ended up being nearly 200 varieties of hops, cross-checked against multiple sources. This process was negative amounts of fun — so a huge ‘thank you’ to our project manager, Dan, for not going crazy (at least I don’t think he went crazy).

How many varieties can we fit in 24" x 36" print?

After some new layout sketches, we were faced with an unexpected challenge: in order for the new design to fit on the same size print as the first edition, we needed to cut our dataset from 200 varieties down to 90 in order to maintain a legible type size. We had to decide which hops wouldn’t make the cut. So we began gathering international sales data from various hop distributors. We weighed sales volume with how much time it would take for varieties to sell out when a harvest hit the market, to determine supply and demand. When sales data skewed towards commercial brewers, we also factored in Google search query and result volume for each variety to establish a (not-at-all-scientific) “popularity” rank, in order to better represent home brewers.

Before it can be visualized, massive amounts of hops data getting sorted and organized.

Lucky for us, Adobe Illustrator’s graph features had improved significantly over the past 5 years; streamlining the process of moving from spreadsheet to canvas. However, a human touch was still required for final visual massaging. After many (many) hours of finesse by our fearless art director Pei, the 2nd Edition of the Hops Chart was finally ready to go to print– just in time for the 2016 Holiday shopping rush.

Once we had a printed proof of the new print, we organized a quick photoshoot for the website and social media posts, and unleashed a simple digital marketing strategy across email, Facebook, and Instagram, and rolled up our sleeves to start fulfilling orders.

The Hops Chart started as personal project, intended to fulfill a self-inflicted curiosity. By sharing the work-in-progress experiment with an enthusiastic community, a fire got lit that couldn't be snuffed (even if it took a couple years of smoldering before we actually got a product out the door). Since then, the Hops Chart has taken on a life of its own. We couldn't not update it — we have an ongoing responsibility to beer geeks around the world. Or maybe just because we want it for ourselves too.

(If you or someone you know suffers from beer-geek-itis, symptoms can be suppressed with your own Hops Chart print. 15% off with code EM15 at hopschart.com)

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