After hops are harvested in the fall, typically from August through September, they generally take one of two paths. Most of them are immediately dried in a kiln, and then the whole cones are compressed into bales or processed into pellets or hop extract. The remaining small amount is immediately sent to brew kettles to make fresh hop (aka wet hop) beers. Freshly picked hops must be used within hours or refrigerated for no longer than about a day because they spoil and degrade quickly.
Hop extract is nothing new. There are at least a few methods of extracting hop oils from the cones, including using hot water, CO2 or ethanol, and the extract can even be processed further to isolate specific compounds. Some large breweries use extracts exclusively (for efficiency and consistency reasons), and some craft breweries use them as a supplement to whole leaf or pellet hops to boost IBUs and to reduce liquid loss (e.g., Russian River’s Pliny the Elder).
I have homebrewed with HopShot extract before, and I found it to be an easy way to infuse additional IBUs (International Bitterness Units) into the beer without the hassle of overloading the kettle with hop material. Extract can also help to overcome isomerization inadequacies of some systems. Overall, I thought the extract provided a clean and neutral bitterness to my beer, but its aroma contribution seemed muted.
The hop oil used in Sierra Nevada’s Hop Hunter IPA, however, is different from any other hop oil / extract currently made. Traditionally, they are made from dried and processed hops, but Hop Hunter is the first beer to feature oil from wet hops that are steam distilled right in the field, just minutes after they’re harvested. Essentially, this process harnesses the fresh-hop flavors and it allows Sierra Nevada to brew this beer year round.
Hop Hunter IPA is brewed with this fresh-hop oil (distilled from Cascade, Centennial and CTZ hops) along with whole-cone hops (Magnum and Millennium for bittering and Cascade, Crystal and Simcoe for aroma) in the brew kettle. Sierra Nevada’s Hop Torpedoes are also employed to increase the hop oil concentration in the beer.
By the way, in case you’re not familiar with them, Sierra Nevada’s Hop Torpedoes are large metal containers that are packed with whole-cone hops and the fermenting beer is circulated through them. It’s kind of like dry hopping on steroids.
“I’m really excited about the work we’ve done on Hop Hunter,” said Ken Grossman, Sierra Nevada’s founder. “We’re no stranger to experimental hops and hopping techniques, but developing distilled wet hop oil is unlike anything we’ve tried. The results are amazing.”
The first thing I noticed after pouring Hop Hunter into a glass was its huge, wafting aromas of flowers and white pepper. Hop flavors were earthy, grassy and hay-like, and the beer finishes with a resin-like nuttiness.
The malt side of this beer (the malt bill consists of 2-row, caramel malt and flaked oats) is subdued, allowing the hops to own the stage, though it does have subtle elements of crackers, nuts and light grains, along with a faint, cereal-like sweetness.
It finishes somewhat dry with a nip of alcohol (6.2% ABV) and a moderate amount of bitterness (60 IBUs).
Similar to many other fresh hop beers, Hop Hunter has a good amount of earthy, floral and grassy fresh-hop characteristics, and at times they can make you think you’re chewing on a hop cone. For some, these flavors can be a bit too raw and intense. For others, they can’t seem to get enough, which is why fresh hop beers have really exploded in recent years – especially in the Northwest (which, of course, is the country’s largest hop-growing region).
Hop Hunter IPA is available year-round in 12-ounce bottles and on draft. For more information, visit SierraNevada.com.