Sierra Nevada Brewing manger Brian Grossman received a significant pushback when the brewery announced it would add a new year-round IPA in addition to its signature Torpedo Extra IPA.
"Everybody told us you guys are crazy. You already have the number-one selling IPA in the country," says Grossman. But Brian and his father, Sierra Nevada founder Ken Grossman, had developed a hops-harvesting breakthrough that convinced them to risk cannibalizing the sales of Torpedo. Where almost all beers, Torpedo included, rely on dried hops available all year, the Grossmans had figured out a way to package the aroma of wet, undried hops — something only available during a hop harvest — for brewing any time.
Sierra Nevada was the first modern brewer to use hops straight from the fields, called wet hops, adding the hops to its brew kettle within hours of picking. The process provides richer, more complex hop aroma lost when hops are dried for year-round storage, but it also meant production limited to a few days of the year.
"Wet hops are fairly fragile, they'll degrade almost immediately when picked," says Ken Grossman. "You have to brew with them in a matter of days." Not only do aromas disappear quickly, but brewers that wait too long find that their beers smell more like wet cabbage than vibrant citrus and pine hops.
Inspiration struck when Ken and Brian happened upon a custom steam distillation apparatus to process mint oil on a visit to a hop farmer. Soon, they were working with the farm to modify the process to allow wet hops to be distilled down to their aroma.
The process they came up with steams the fresh-picked Centennial, Cascade, and Zeus hops in the field, evaporating the delicate aroma oils. The resulting vapors are sent through a condenser to convert back into liquid. Then they separate the hop oils from the condensed water and add it to beer after fermentation is complete.
Sierra Nevada's new Hop Hunter IPA uses the oil in addition to the traditional dried hops. The resulting beer features a huge floral and citrusy aroma on par with the freshest IPAs. It's closer to rubbing hops in the field than any beer we have encountered and unlike any other IPA you'll find on the shelf in winter.
The Grossmans admit they're still fine-tuning the oil addition, saying that they custom dose every batch of Hop Hunter to maintain a consistent character. And when asked if he thinks the new hop oil will take off, Brian Grossman smiles and says it's all up to the beer drinkers.