Sierra Nevada, the company whose signature Pale Ale cleared the way for the introduction of even more hop-heavy styles, is doubling down on its knack for brewing with beer’s most potent bittering agent.
Five years removed the launch of Torpedo Extra IPA — the hoppier big brother to the company’s signature Pale Ale flagship that it has turned into a runaway hit — Sierra Nevada is once again looking to carve out IPA-derived revenue despite retail shelves that are already sagging from the weight of a glut of the style.
Later this month, Sierra, craft beer’s second-largest company, will release Hop Hunter IPA, a new, year-round offering that brewery officials are hoping will benefit from the growing attention beer fans are paying to wet hop and fresh hop styles. Sierra is betting that its reputation for a mastery of hops, coupled with an intense focus on innovation, will allow it to consolidate leadership in the evolving subcategory of those wet hop beers.
“The notion of having wet-hop characteristics is certainly a highlight that we will use pretty consistently,” said Ryan Arnold, the company’s communication manager. “We’re pushing the limits. We are well aware that IPAs are doing extremely well, but introducing a year-round, hop-forward beer is right up our alley and our hope is that there is a good story to tell.”
Already known for seasonal fresh hop releases like Celebration and Southern Hemisphere Harvest, Sierra, with the help of an undisclosed hop farmer in the Yakima Valley in Washington, has devised a way to steam-distill wet hops and extract their essential oils. The company is confident that those oils, which are injected into Hop Hunter IPA about 48 hours prior to packaging, will enable it to provide consumers a wet hop drinking experience 365 days per year.
“The aim with Hop Hunter IPA, and doing this steam distillation of wet hops right in the field, was to capture very pure, intense hop oil at the peak of the freshness,” Arnold said.
To refresh, wet hop beers – often referred to as fresh hop beers — are made with un-dried hops that are picked and incorporated into the brewing process within a 24-to-48 hour window. Traditionally, these beers have only been available during the fall months. And while many craft brewers use the phrases “wet hop” and “fresh hop” interchangeably, on its website, Sierra contends that the two are actually different.
“Over recent years, there has been some confusion about the difference between fresh and wet hops,” the company’s website states. “While it may seem like semantics, to us it’s an important distinction. Wet Hops are un-dried hops, picked and shipped from the growing fields within 24 hours. Fresh Hops are the freshest dried hops to come from the fields, typically within seven days of harvest.”
The issue behind the company’s new release, however, isn’t semantics. It’s that Hop Hunter is being made at a time when the craft beer segment is awash with thousands of different IPAs.
According to market research firm IRI, more than 21 percent of all craft beers sold in 2014 were IPAs. Popular beer review website BeerAdvocate lists more than 8,300 different American IPA offerings in its database – and that’s not including higher-octane double and triple IPAs variants.
Hop Hunter undoubtedly risks getting lost in a sea of IPAs, sales of which grew by nearly 47 percent last year according to IRI. And then there are the breweries in planning, many of which will launch with IPA brands of their own. As of June, the Brewers Association counted more than 1,900 startups looking to get off the ground.
So the question is — will consumers care about yet another IPA, especially one that is sold, nationwide, by the country’s second largest craft brewery? That’s where Sierra, which in recent years has based much of its innovation around hoppier styles, believes its own advances and reputation will make the case.
To capture drinkers’ attention, Sierra, which already boasts an established track record of successfully introducing high-quality, hop-forward products – it’s Torpedo Extra IPA was the best-selling IPA in 2014 (volume sales were up 12 percent) – will flex its marketing muscle to tell the story of Hop Hunter IPA, pushing hard on the story of how it discovered it could steam-distill wet hops.
Throughout its 34-year history, Sierra has proven it can execute behind consumer education and the company is once again banking on its ability to cultivate a captive audience who will purchase Hop Hunter and share its narrative.
On the surface, Hop Hunter appears to have all the components for a successful new beer launch. There’s innovation — no brewer has ever been able to provide consumers a “wet hop” beer option year-round; there’s reputation — Sierra has been producing its highly regarded Celebration Fresh Hop IPA since 1981; and, perhaps most importantly, there’s that compelling story.
Indeed, the image of a semi-trailer full of wet hops being steam-distilled for their precious oils has a strong chance of capturing plenty of beer geek interest and, at an affordable suggested retail price of $8.99 per six-pack, Hop Hunter, for all its “revolutionary” qualities, also has an opportunity to bridge the gap between connoisseurs and more mainstream craft drinkers.
“IPAs are now a quarter of the craft beer market,” said Bill Manley, one of the company’s product developers. “I feel like there is no shortage of people who are rushing out to try that new IPA, but at some point there are ones that have to stand above the crowd.”
Hop Hunter will be Sierra’s “single biggest release since Torpedo,” according to Manley, and the company is in the early stages of planning a series of nationwide events to promote the new product.
That’s good news for retailers and distributors who are eager to get their hands on the beer.
“Nobody has any business bringing an IPA into the market if it is not better than everything else out there,” said Suzanne Schalow, the co-founder of the popular retail chain Craft Beer Cellar. “And of course Sierra Nevada would have figured out how to do this (steam-distill wet hops). It gives me another education segway to talk to customers, and we are thirsty for that.”
Kimberly Clements, the president of Arizona’s Golden Eagle Distributing, which sells Sierra Nevada in the Phoenix area, said she hasn’t yet had a single sip of Hop Hunter, but she said she is expecting plenty of consumer curiosity and believes the beer will be another excuse for promiscuous craft beer drinkers to revisit one of the industry’s pioneering companies.
“I think there will be a lot of interest,” she said. “Sierra is seen, in some cases, as a very mainstream brand. The more they innovate, and the more excitement there is surrounding the brewery, I think consumers will be brought back into the Sierra Nevada franchise.”