Okay, they have released a number of beers in the intervening years, but none in their regular, year-round lineup. Twenty-eight years. There were like ten craft breweries in '81, and probably none of them still brew their original beers. That's some amazing consistency. (The brewery is also rightly credited with having introduced and then popularlized "West Coast" style hopping.)
You can imagine, then, that Torpedo was greeted with a little anticipation. To add to it--if that's possible--Torpedo is an IPA, perhaps the most-popular and most overexposed craft style in the country. So how do you achieve originality when, in the intervening three decades since you last went out on the line with a regular beer, 1500 American breweries have made just about every style on the planet? It's quite a condundrum: brew something distinctive, worthy of your status as the country's most-popular brewery, but also something your broad fan base will recognize and appreciate. Familiar, but not too much so.
Sierra Nevada accomplished the trick by using a new, very rare hop called Citra but keeping all the other settings on normal. It's a distinctive hop and, according to the brewery, it is so rare there are only about three acres under cultivation:
I think I mentioned earlier, that there are only about 3 acres of this hop anywhere in the world. There just isn't that much of it to go around. I was in our hop freezer this afternoon, and we have a solid 250 lb bale. I think that's it. Total. End of story.So, for the moment, anyway, SN has cornered the market on this hop, and will own the characteristic flavor it imparts. What is Citra's lineage? In a small article in the Hop Science Newsletter (.pdf) they're described this way:
The variety Citra, with a alpha acid content between 10-12% and an oil content of 2-3 % originated from a cross between the female European noble aroma variety Hallertauer Mittelfrueh and a male that was derived from the variety known as U.S. Tettnanger. Citra is 50% Hallertauer mittelfrueh, 25% U.S. Tettnanger and the remaining 25% is East Kent Golding, Bavarian, Brewers Gold and other unknown hops. Citra has a special flavor and aroma that it imparts to beer. Depending on the brewing process and the hopping rate, the flavors and aromas of beers hopped with Citra might range from grapefruit to lime, melon, gooseberry, and lychee fruit.The Citras are only used in dry-hopping (the other hops are Magnum and Crystal). The "Torpedo" of the name is apparently a particular device the brewery uses to boost the extractione from the small amount of hops to which they have access:
Traditional dry hopping is really wasteful, in regards to the amount of hops used. With traditional dry-hopping, hops are literally stuffed into bags and placed inside of the fermentors. The hops at the center of the bags don't get as much contact time with the wort and there's really no way to measure how much of the aroma is imparted on the beer from batch to batch.So there you go. In other regards, the beer is a pretty standard IPA: 17.8 P and 7.2% alcohol, 70 IBUs, Carapils and crystal malt. The brewery's really hanging their hat on the Citras.
With the torpedo device, there is a known quantity of hops used in the thing, and it can be used with a big volume of beer. Requiring less hops by volume, with a BIG difference in imparted flavors.
Much as you'd expect, it looks like a straightforward IPA--a bright amber and a frothy oatmeal head. The aroma is piney and resinous; these are the familiar notes. On the label, SN describes the other, unfamiliar ones as "herbal." Perhaps this is a euphemism. I get a more classic catty quality (funny how "catty" has fallen out of favor as an adjective, isn't it?)--thinking of the fu manchu, though, maybe this is "herbal" in the cannibis sense. Stanky, sticky. It tastes more or less like this, too. The two dominant qualities are pine and catty resin, but there's citrus, too, and maybe a touch of peach.
It's a bold, characterful beer, and I like that it's getting mixed reviews. Beers that take chances don't please everyone. But those who are pleased will love the beer--and for them, there won't be any competition.
[Update. Here's even more about the torpedo hop extractor:
"The name Torpedo stems from an invention that Ken Grossman and the brewers came up with several years ago. The Hop Torpedo is a cylindrical stainless steel vessel that was developed to harness the essential oils and resins in hops, without extracting bitterness. The device essentially works like an espresso machine. A stainless filter basket is packed full of whole cone hops loaded into the vessel and sealed against pressure. The device is then placed in the fermentation cellars where beer from the cylindroconical fermenters is pushed down from the tanks, through the pressurized column of hops and back into the fermenting tank. The flow of beer out of the tanks, into the Torpedo and back into the fermenter can be controlled to extract different levels of flavor, aroma and bitterness. Essentially, it is a new way of dry-hopping that extracts all of the oily resin without the residual bitterness of the traditional method."]