Paige Latham Didora
your kids are gonna love it: Hopzoil™
Interested in part one of the Hop Preservation Series? See Cryo hops here.
What was the last true Gamechanger in beer? What process or product contributed so much to the business of making beer that it’s now commonplace? Sierra Nevada has the Hop Bullet. Dogfish Head has the Randall. Norwegian Kveik is on a world tour while lactose is experiencing its heyday. An ancient beverage within a burgeoning market is sure to have its turning points. Could Hopzoil be one such product?
I haven’t been around long enough in beer to boast any sort of crystal ball. What I do know is that Tom Britz of Glacier Ranch Hops in Whitefish, Montana made some heads turn in a hotel conference room full of beer writers when he placed an oil-dipped toothpick into a glass of Coors Light.
Tom Britz is first and foremost a businessman, not a brewer. With his interest in hops and his location in Montana, he knew he needed a niche. Washington’s Yakima Valley has the market cornered on hop fields — 75% of the nation’s hops are grown there. Growing hops on a small (or even medium) scale is hardly profitable and hardly fun. However, Montana’s golden triangle, an ideal farming biome situated between two mountain ranges, practically beckons for bines.
The niche began to take shape when the idea of an oil-based product fell, piece by piece, into place. As it happens, Montana had not only the land, but the facilities that Britz required. About 35 years ago, mint started to populate Montana’s Flathead Valley. Other herbs, too. By the early 2000’s, there were about 15 mint-processing distilleries in Northwestern Montana processing tens of thousands of acres of various types of mint.
As Britz explains, about 15 years ago, the Chinese began exporting cheaper spearmint and peppermint oil to the U.S., at approximately 60 cents on the dollar compared to the U.S. farmers. “It crushed the Northwest Montana mint industry. Today, only one local farmer produces mint, growing under 100 acres total. Most of the distilleries were salvaged off, and three are still operating.” Besides the small mint grower and distiller remaining, the other two facilities produce dill oil. Though the hop distillation process differs significantly, the fact remained, much of the old mint industry equipment was of no further use — but it could be repurposed. Britz’s idea needed refining — the hop extracts on the market at the time were made using CO2 extraction, not distillation.
Britz’ final push of inspiration occurred when Sierra Nevada released Hop Hunter, made with hop oil, in 2015. Consumers were promised something unprecedented — the taste of fresh hop season outside of September. The product was described as “oil from wet hops steam distilled in the hop field, minutes after harvest.” Cue the Aha moment.
The oil-making process is similar to that of any essential oil. The end result is a pure expression of hop aroma and flavor without any vegetation. Steam distillation takes place right at the time of harvest, and there is no drying or pelletizing involved. There are no alpha or beta acids and the entire purpose is aroma and flavor, thereby standing in for traditional dry hopping.
Hopzoil was finally born when Britz took his oil — a small amount made from the farm’s own hops — to the Craft Brewers Conference. The result was so positive that he soon multiplied production beyond what his own Montana growers could sustain. In Flathead County, Britz works with several affiliated growers who farm 15 acres, all of which goes into making Hopzoil. Even with a massive new grower adding 180 acres this spring, that’s a drop in the bucket when compared to the Pacific Northwest.
For that reason, Glacier Ranch Hops partnered with Green Acre Farms in the lower Yakima Valley, the original producer of the oil used in Hop Hunter. Green Acre processes the Montana-grown hops using shared proprietary distillation technology. This arrangement supplements the limited quantity and varieties that Glacier Ranch Hops can grow.
Hopzoil had a few early adopters. Tim Schnars, II, Chief Brewing Officer at Meadowlark Brewing in Sidney, Montana, uses Hopzoil in several IPAs, including the Et Cetera IPA: “Honestly, a hop-oil infused IPA has more intensity than a regular IPA. I refer to them as Super IPAs.” Beyond flavor, Hopzoil has a few other advantages, not the least of which is shelf life. Schnars is confident that Hopzoil has helped increase the lifespan of his hop-forward beers.
Reduction in shipping weight, refrigeration requirements, and biomass — these are not negligible improvements. As any brewer will tell you, dry hopping with pellets (or whole cone hops) causes a significant volume loss which in turn affects the bottom line. A brewer need only order a container of Hopzoil smaller than a can of spray paint to dry hop multiple batches of IPA.
That’s where the toothpick comes in. To illustrate the strength of the essential oil, Britz took a toothpick, dipped it in the oil, and placed it in a snifter of light beer. He then asked author Josh Noel to describe what he was tasting. The result was a light beer that tasted intentionally dry-hopped by design. Over-hopped, even, due to the small volume. In a way, it sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? Adding ingredients to completed beer the way the Germans add woodruff syrup to Berliner Weisse. But it works.
Even more remarkable is the shelf life of Hopzoil-infused IPAs. The style, notorious for losing its punch steadily over time, often significantly dropping its hoppy profile around 60 days, benefits from fresh consumption. IPAs made using Hopzoil can last 90 days or better. The exact reason for this isn’t entirely clear and was an unforeseen benefit of using Hopzoil. The chemical compounds that create aroma are the least well understood parts of a hop cone. They are the most volatile, and the fact that Hopzoil is never heated works in its favor.
At Meadowlark, Schnars isn’t looking back. He’s pleased with what the new method has brought to his line of beer. There are few limitations to the product. “The company is diligently working on improving solubility,” explains Schnars. Quality is typically not an issue. Occasionally, he explains, “there is still some oil that comes out of suspension […] though the brewers who have tried it and spoken to me were mostly pleased.” The oil is in use in several states, including Texas, where Buffalo Bayou Brewing employs the dry-hopping strategy with happy results. Oddly, they didn’t want to share what beers employ the oil.
Adoption of the promising new technology has a long way to go. And that growth will only continue based on the IPA-crazed climate. As more and more breweries seek out methods to differentiate their hoppy IPAs, I am confident that manipulation of hops will lead the way. Schnars put it best — “It’s kind of like that scene from Back to the Future: ‘I guess you guys aren’t ready for that yet…but your kids are gonna love it.'”