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Friday, February 20, 2009

Sierra Nevada Torpedo IPA, an Exhaustive Exegesis

Here's a thought experiment. Not an experiment so much as mental time travel. Or something. Anyway, imagine the year is 1981. You sport a wicked fu manchu and despise this "new wave" music and all that Kim Carnes stands for. But not all change is bad. Some hippies from out in California have introduced a bunch of beer that is strong and strange and you can't get enough of it. You've tried their Pale, Porter, Stout, and Wheat, and you can't wait for the next thing they release. In the meantime, maybe you'll go check out this new Betamax thing so you can record Bob Marley on this new MTV thing. When they're not showing that "Bette Davis Eyes" crap.

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.

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.
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.

Tasting Notes
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."]


  1. I don't know what the haters are talking about, this is a great beer and a great addition to their lineup.

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  3. I'm also glad they added this to their lineup. SN makes some of my favorites like Bigfoot and Hop Harvest... There prior, regular release IPA was pretty week in my opinion. Torpedo is a nice step up.

  4. Jeff, I don't believe that you are correct that the Torpedo is the first addition to their year-round bottled line-up in 28 years. Their Wheat Beer hasn't been around nearly as long as the Pale Ale, Porter and Stout.

  5. Jeff, I don't believe that you are correct that the Torpedo is the first addition to their year-round bottled line-up in 28 years.

    I know, it's inconceivable, isn't it? But that's what Bill Manley at the brewery says:

    “Yes, Sierra Nevada will be releasing Torpedo Extra IPA as a new addition to our year-round staple of beers. The tentative release date is January 15. This is the first change in our year-round lineup since we started back in 1980. The beer will be available in 6-packs, with the same distribution as all of our other year-round and seasonal beers."

  6. Well, you seem to have it right from the horse's mouth, Jeff! But Sierra Nevada's website lists their Wheat Beer as one of their year-round staples, and I'm just about as sure as I can be that it hasn't been bottled for all of 28 years. I guess I'll have to take it up with the horse. ;-)

  7. Yea, Can't wait to have another widely available, affordable 6pack beer, besides Bridgeport or Lagaunitas IPA's.

    When will this hit all the stores?
    I've yet to see it around.

  8. Anonymous, it's on shelves now and has been for a few weeks, but demand has been outstripping supply. I suspect that will changes when the initial furor dies down. For what it's worth, I saw about three cases of it at Beaumont Market on NE Fremont yesterday afternoon (also there: Russian River Consecration).

  9. Jeff, Widmer has been working with this hop for over a year now. We have contracted our own acre as well. It netted us just around 350#. We have done an IPA known as X-114. 114 was the name given to the hop before Citra. BX-114 is on tap now at the Gasthaus. It is a Black IPA with Citra.

    It is great to see SN go big time with this hop. Hopefully they can sustain the brand! But I will say that there are more than just 3 acres out there.

    PS. Not trying to be a bubble buster!

    Ben D.

  10. This "torpedo" device sounds a lot like the randall, a big hop-packed column which beer is run through, used by some east coast breweries to give their beer some extra hop punch. Kinda cheating. Russian River Brewing even makes t-shirts saying "No Randall Required". I'm surprised a self-respecting California brewery would do such a thing.

  11. As the poster above mentioned, this does remind me quite a bit of "The Randall" used by Dogfish Head, though I don't fully understand why dry hopping in this manner is considered to be a bad thing (or surprising, since California has quite the history of playing it fast and loose with the rules when it comes to both beer and wine making).

    Thanks for the interesting and informative article!

  12. The Randall can be a bad thing because it frequently involves a publican second-guessing the intent of the brewer by passing an already finished beer through additional hops of unknown provenance on its way to your glass. The Torpedo is used by the brewer to impart desired hop character to an unfinished beer while still in the fermenter. Somewhat similar process, very different results.

  13. Jeff,

    Nice info about this tremendous new beer & especially about the intriguing citra hops. The overall hop profile of Torpedo is wonderful...great flavors & aromas.

    Torpedo EIPA has become my basic go-to beer at home. It is wonderfully complex & oh so drinkable. Maybe a little bit strong @ 7.2% to be a true session beer, but a couple in the evening definitely gives a nice golden glow :)

    Bravo to Sierra Nevada for another big winner! And thanks to you for the comprehensive info.

  14. Steve L. in San Diego8:24 PM, April 07, 2009

    As an avid home brewer, I can tell you that the torpedo works great! I made one out of PVC pipe (2") with caps, some stainless steel mesh screen and a couple of 1/2" NPT x 3/8" barb adapters. I generally let my ales rest at 45-50 deg. for about a week after fermenting, then rack through the torpedo which normally has 2" of whole leaf hops (I like Simcoe, Chinook, Cascade, Fuggle if it's fresh) for a 5-6 gal. batch. Two passes through the torpedo then back for another 3-4 days of cold secondary and ... voila! Spectacular dry hopping without residual or off flavors, and clarified, nearly chill-haze-free home brew without filtration. The trade off is little or no yeast harvest from secondary, but you can dry hop after a first racking - it works at any step in the process. You can dry hop straight from the fermenter too. If you're a real fanatic, chop the hops before packing the torpedo to give it even more leaf surface area and encourage the oils to dissolve out completely.

  15. A fantastic IPA, yet with the distinctive coffee tastes of a darker malt, yet the extreme bitter of the strong hops. However, it is balanced for an "extra" IPA, and is strong, but just strong enough. The difference between 7.2% and say 9.0% is being able to enjoy two pints or only one ;) This is one of the best everyday Sierra Nevada brews, worth the $8.99 or so..