Old School Meets Innovation: Sierra Nevada Hop Hunter IPA


In a craft beer market in which some of the old guard face being disregarded by fickle beer snobs in search of The Next Big Thing, I’ve been watching with interest as Sierra Nevada works on keeping things fresh.

Let’s face it, for decades Sierra Nevada Pale Ale was not just the best pale ale available, it was the only pale ale available in many markets. We’ve seen Samuel Adams, one of craft beer’s torch-bearers for decades, struggle to keep up as its brand staled, and we’ve watched it try to re-brand recent IPA products in an attempt to reach the coveted IPA-swigging market. (I’m a fan of Sam’s Rebel IPA, by the way.)

Meanwhile, Sierra Nevada has been quietly bringing intriguing and delicious small-batch products to the market, and with some success. I watched as last year’s Harvest Series unfolded, and nearly fell in love with one of them. And now I cannot get enough of the recently released Hop Hunter IPA.

Whereas the Harvest Series was brewed using a variety of hops and hop methods, the Hop Hunter is made with hop oil. According to Sierra Nevada's description of the beer, a new method of steam distilling wet hops while they are still in the fields “captures the natural flavors, creating a unique and intensely aromatic beer.”

Boy does it ever. I’m not going to dig into the details of how it works – I’m far more interested in the end product. Pour a Hop Hunter IPA into a tulip glass and the nose develops into a bouquet of fresh hops blended with tropical fruit. Bittered with Magnum and Millennium, the beer is then finished with Cascade, Crystal and Simcoe. The oil is made with Cascade, Centennial and CTZ. However this oil extraction process works, it’s worth your time just to smell this beer. Literally, I could sit and sniff a pint of it for half an hour and be happy never taking a drink.

But I did take a drink, and you should as well. You may be surprised; I was. Sure, 60 IBU does not exactly signal an orgy of hop spice and bitterness, but the hop flavor on the front of this beer – which nicely matches the nose – does not portend the finish, which is amazingly smooth and slightly dry. The flavor ends up citrusy, with slight piney tones, a bit of pepper and moderate bitterness.

This one holds up nicely in comparison to the Harvest Series brew I fell for in late 2014 (and which seems to be gone now, sadly): Neomexicanus, made with wild hops which some hop hunters “found while scrambling down hillsides near their home in New Mexico.” This single-hopped brew had a similar freshness to that of the Hop Hunter IPA.

Fortunately, unlike the Harvest Series beers, Hop Hunter IPA will apparently be available year-round. I’ll consider this one a go-to – at least until The Next Big Thing comes along. Hey, beer drinkers are fickle creatures – but kudos to an old-school brewer bidding to be that Next Big Thing.