Sierra Nevada took to Torpedo Room in Berkeley last Wednesday to feature their newly released beers. With the year-round Nooner Pilsner and the spring seasonal Beer Camp Hoppy Lager on stage, the headline feature of the night was the Hop Hunter IPA – a beer using farm-distilled hop oil.
The experiment began about four years ago in Washington’s Yakima Valley, where founder Ken Grossman travels each year during the hop harvest. When he saw one of the farmers distilling fresh mint into highly concentrated oil for products like gum and toothpaste, he asked him to try using hops in the same device – and it worked.
Traditionally, oil used in beer is distilled from hops that have already been dried in a type of heat chamber called a kiln, causing a huge decrease in the fresh hop taste and smell. What makes Hop Hunter unique is Sierra Nevada’s innovative way of using just-picked wet hops and pure steam to pull out those essential oils right there on the farm.
“If you walk in a kiln, there is a huge amount of aroma being driven off during the drying process,” Grossman said. “We had the idea of capturing the hops when they have a lot more character, a lot more oil and a lot more flavor.”
To create the oil, whole-cone wet hops are taken from the crop during the very short harvest time and immediately put into tanks. With the use of a steam generator, heat and moisture convert the hop oil into vapor. The steam and vapor are then put inside of a condensing system which separates them as they are cooled down back into liquid, leaving the oil on the top and ready to be purified and stored.
“The oil is an aggressive, intense and highly-concentrated thing,” Grossman said. “We freeze it in a -15 degree freezer, sealed in a nitrogen-flushed container. We have had some now for over three years and it retains pretty much 100 percent of where it was at.”
Because it is so pungent, only a few drops are needed in each whole barrel after fermentation to pack in intense hoppiness and aroma. Traditional hop products are still used to provide the body and balance of the beer.
With all the hoppiness, modest bitterness and a reserved alcohol percent of 6.2, this IPA remains very smooth to drink and its vibrant scent provides lasting and attractive smells of citrus and floral.
Hop Hunter is now available in 12-ounce bottles and on draft.