Ahem. As founder of Sierra Nevada Brewing, currently the second-largest craft brewery in the United States, Ken Grossman is largely responsible for launching our country’s contemporary beer culture in 1980, when his Chico, California-based operation debuted Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. After more than three decades of year-round production, the classic copper-colored brew showcasing Cascade hops remains relevant amid the evolution of Joe Consumer’s palate (we always needmore hop$!!!!) and an increasingly competitive market of breweries hellbent on diversity (we always have different beer$!!!!): in 2013, Pale Ale was the U.S.’ second best-selling craft beer. Much rehspehk!
Grossman’s decision to aggressively use Cascade hops, a highly aromatic variety now synonymous with the American-bred pale ale, for his fledgling brewery’s flagship was a radical strategy; in 1980, there were only 40 breweries in the U.S. and most produced bazillions of barrels of bland lager. His divergent action has become landmark. The arrival of Sierra’s Pale Ale effectively introduced a new archetype—the fragrant, flavorful, hop-forward pale ale—that has allured drinkers, inspired brewers, and influenced new styles. I would also say with confidence, more than any other beer today, we associate the brand and the style as one, interchangeably. The pale ale isSierra Nevada’s Pale Ale.
Grossman’s innovative flair and penchant for experimentation are both easy to discern when examining (see: consuming) his brewery’s oeuvre. There were far more classics than clunkers produced over the years, and most beers have remained in Sierra’s mix for decades: Celebration Ale, Torpedo Extra IPA, Bigfoot Barleywine Style Ale, and, of course, Pale Ale are household names and benchmarks in their respective styles. The latest example of Grossman’s proclivity for tinkering, and perhaps his next classic, is Hop Hunter IPA, which will debut in New York City in the next week or two. This is a unique, potentially game-changing beer, the first made with the oil of wet hops (using hop oil is not new, but it has always originated from driedcones). When I chatted with Grossman on the phone last week, he casually described the oil, and the steam-distillation process used to snatch it, as “an exciting new tool we’re using to boost hop flavor and aroma.” What brewer isn’t always on the prowl for new ways to achieve better hop essence in their beers?
A short le$$on on Humulus lupulus: While the majority of hops harvested—occuring only once annually, typically between mid-August and mid-September—are dried to preserve for year-round use, some are used immediatelyat their peak ripeness—anytime within 24 hours is considered ideal—to create wet-hopped beer. The first modern beermaker to embrace this hella fresh, fast-fleeting seasonal? Sierra Nevada, which decided to make Harvest Ale, now known as Northern Hemisphere Harvest Wet Hop IPA, in 1996.
Since his introduction to Cascade in 1980, then a relatively new varietal (Anchor was the first commercial user in 1975), Grossman has maintained an intimate relationship with the hip-hops growers of Washington’s Yakima Valley, a region accounting for 77 percent of the U.S.’ crop. This intimacy helped lead to the conception of Hop Hunter. The beer’s origin actually starts in 2012, when, during a visit to a mint farmer in Yakima (whose identity will remain undisclosed; for the purpose of this story, his name is Mint Eastwood), Grossman was introduced to a unique gizmo built to extract mint oils from Eastwood’s fresh mint leaves. Grossman was intrigued: “I immediately wanted to know if he could do the same with hops.”
Eastwood could. He brought the oil-sucking device, essentially a large trailer, into his field during the harvest, stuffed it with plump, just-picked hops, and connected it to a steam machine. The steam filled the trailer and its heat distilled the oils—a hop’s main source of aromatics—into a vapor. Once these oils were extracted and vaporized, they were moved into a condenser, converted back into liquid, separated from the water, and collected like fireflies. Booyakasha!
Eastwood built a similar device solely for his hops, solely for use by Sierra Nevada, last year. After tinkering with different combinations—the current blend is Cascade, Crystal, and CTZ hops—and ratios of each variety since the initial dry-hopped trial, Hop Hunter was ready.
The hop oil is potent, Grossman says: only a half-milliliter is used per barrel of beer, and it’s only a small component of the total hoppage (three pounds of whole-cone hops are also injected into each barrel). The oil is also stable: vials from the trial in 2012 are still as fresh as the latest. As a result, Sierra can now make a wet-hopped beer, or one that perfectly captures the aroma, year-round. Much rehspeckt!
A slight detour: While the all-around awesome affixed to Hop Hunter has rightfully incited a palpable buzz among beer loons, it also sparked some high-profile controversy recently. Tony Magee, founder of Lagunitas Brewing, announced his company, also an influential force in the realm of hoppiness, had filed a trademark infringement lawsuit claiming Sierra’s logo for Hop Hunter, which features “all capital, large, bold, black ‘IPA’ lettering in a font selection that is remarkably similar to the iconic Lagunitas design…,” would “create confusion among consumers as to the origin of the IPA given that both designs are used in connection with craft brew India pale ale.”
This is not the proper venue to examine Magee’s claims further, or to determine if his course of action was justifiable. After the announcement of Lagunitas’ intentions reached the “Court of Public Opinion,” however, a feverish backlash ensued and Magee quickly withdrew the lawsuit. “Today I was seriously schooled & I heard you well,” he tweeted.
A small group, which included myself, was invited to taste Hop Hunter last night with Grossman and his son, Brian, who also works at Sierra, at the just-opened Kiabacca in Hell’s Kitchen. The gathering started with Pale Ale, which I hadn’t gulped in a few years (though mildly bitter by today’s standards, the beer was considered aggressive upon its release), and finished with the newcomer.
The beauty of wet-hopped beers is dat fa-rrrreshness, your mouth frollicing through a flowery field, your nostrils snorting bumps of raw hop. Hop Hunter had it. The aroma was insanely floral and fresh, the mouthfeel intensely dry, and there wasn’t much hop bitterness. Was this the best wet-hopped beer ever? I don’t know. But I would certainly rank Hop Hunter in the pantheon of the style’s “legitimate” offerings, alongside the Founders Harvest Ales, the Deschutes Hop Trips.
As the event continued, I was able to chat more with Grossman… On using wet hops oil: We got the idea when we walked through a kiln with hops drying—you could smell the hop aroma coming off them. The drying process drives a lot of volatile aromas off the hop, from 80 percent moisture to about 10 or 12. Our concept was to take them when they’re green in the field, before that aroma’s been driven off, and have that green character accessible all year long.
On crafting the perfect oil: We’ve gone to great lengths to get wet hops quicker and fresher so we can showcase them in beer. For this, we spent a lot of time experimenting with different varieties, different amounts of oil fractions, and at which temperature drives off the compounds we were looking to capture. You have no idea how potent it is. We started out at a milliliter, but it was enamel-peeling. We wanted to make a drinkable, balanced beer, and we could have gone extreme quite easily. We tried to figure out where the right level was. Behind the scenes, it was hundreds of hours of R&D.
On the oil’s stability: It’s very stable once it becomes oil. We put it into a freezer at around -30 degrees. We have some samples in vials that are two or three years old and they’re still really stable.
On what Hop Hunter tastes like: We wanted a beer to showcase hops like our Torpedo IPA, but that also showcases some caramel malts, which does mask some of the hop presence. For this, we wanted less of a malt presence, fairly light with the toasted malts. It’s a fairly dry and light beer, slightly lower in alcohol. We do use some oats here for body and mouthfeel. It’s a drinkable hops-focused beer really showcasing the characteristics of wet hops, that burst of freshness.
On whether Hop Hunter will be as impactful as Pale Ale: Probably not. Pale Ale in the era it was debuted, was truly different. A beer that didn’t really taste like anything else on the market. It was a “love it or hate it” proposition. Fortunately for us, many people loved it. Today, we’ve grown so accustomed to big hop flavor. There is scarcely an area of the country that isn’t producing some incredible hop-forward beers. The flavor of Hop Hunter and the technique of wet hop oil is new and unique, but not a complete and total departure from the beer landscape of the day as much as Pale Ale was in its time.
On Lagunitas and the lawsuit: Icertainly didn’t know it was gonna happen. We had some communication in the last few weeks; we didn’t really agree with his position. We even took the two packages side by side and showed some brewers that we really trust, and we asked them, “If this was your brand and we came out with this, would you see any conflict or confusion?” They all didn’t. When Tony phoned me to tell us, I was a little bit surprised, a little shocked he went that route. But it’s behind us and we’re happy to move on.