When brewers get it right, drinkers love the rich, powerful hit that comes from hop oil – but it’s not always easy getting it right.
Hop oils are in the news after NZ Hops last week announced a deal to create bespoke Kiwi hop oils with UK-based Totally Natural Solutions.
Hamish Ward, head brewer at Deep Creek, has been playing with hop oils for five years starting with Hoppy McHopface, which is marketed as a “hop oil double IPA”.
The beer, made with oils distilled from fresh Nelson Sauvin hops, was the undoubted star of the 2016 Beervana festival in Wellington where it ran out inside the first of four scheduled sessions.
To satisfy demanding customers, Deep Creek had to fly in an extra vial of oil to dose kegs of their double IPA for the later sessions.
Ward has played with various iterations of hop oils over the years and currently has another version of Hoppy McHopface ready to be dosed with oil they distilled at last year’s hop harvest.
The fascination with hop oils came when the Deep Creek team took a trip to the United States for the Great American Beer Festival a few years ago.
“One of the beers we had there was Sierra Nevada Hop Hunter, made with oil distilled oil from fresh hops,” Ward recalled.
“We were blown away by the fresh hop taste and the fact it was available year-round.
“One of our co-founders, Jarred McLauchlan, especially loved it and wanted to make a version. And when Jarred gets an idea, it’s happening.
“He tasked me with coming up with a process where we could create our own take on that beer.”
Deep Creek found a distiller and put around 200kg of fresh hops through a process that yielded about 300ml of oil.
It doesn’t sound like much, but Ward used just 2ml per 50-litre keg of Hoppy McHopface.
“That was polarising beer. I’d be lying if I said I was a massive fan of it, as it’s not what you’d call an everyday drink. But it’s perfect for a festival beer or a seasonal release.
“I won’t defend it as a complex, layered beer – it’s trying to do one thing, and that wins the arms race. It blows your taste buds away.”
Since then, Deep Creek has regularly distilled fresh hops to get a year-round supply of oil for occasional re-releases of Hoppy McHopface. This year’s attempt at distilling was thwarted by COVID-19 but they are happily using last year’s oil.
“Hop oil lasts really well, ours is argon-purged and we put it in little vials.”
Ward has used commercial oils, which are made with a fractionation process, as opposed to a distillation. Fractionation breaks the hop components such as alpha acids, beta acids, and essential oils.
Ward explained that distilled oil is not all that soluble – “it tends to stick to the inside of whatever vessel it’s in” – whereas fractionated oils are more soluble and more intense.
He’s tried both and prefers Deep Creek’s “less refined process”.
“We’ve dabbled with commercial products and I’ve been a bit underwhelmed by them. I liked our product more even though Hoppy McHopface is definitely a one-dimensional beer.
“And you have to be careful about how you use commercial preparations – the character you get from them is very noticeable if you use too much.”
Luke Nicholas of Epic, New Zealand’s pioneer of West Coast-style IPA, agrees with Ward’s assessment that beers relying on hop oils can lack dimensionality.
“I find them a bit one dimensional and lacking. Maybe I’m a purist. I’ve looked at several different suppliers over the years and never really found anything that I like.”
Brian Watson at Good George is another who hasn’t quite found what he’s looking for in hop oils, but he’s committed to trialling new products for the obvious benefits hop oils can bring.
The Hamilton brewery has tried a few different hop oils in the past but with “little success” but are about to start new hop oil trials in November as part of the “never-ending search to make better beer”.
“With pellet hops there is a lot of vegetative matter in there which give undesirable characters from the leaf and stalks, polyphenols cause astringency … giving some beers a stalky harshness from extraction of those,” Watson explains.
“We actually only really want the hop oils themselves.”
He sees wastage as another key reason to use oils where possible, as hop pellets soak up so much wort.
“The hops are very dry and we find they significantly increase wastage.”
On the positive side, he believes hop oils can aid consistency, especially as an alternative to dry-hopping, which brings a “number of variables” to the process.
Shelf life is another potential benefit.
“Introducing hop pellets introduces oxygen, dry-hopped beers do not have the same shelf life as they show signs of oxidation earlier,” he said.
“We find our Hazy Pilsner is fresher three times longer than our dry-hopped APA.”
And there’s also the recently identified phenomena of hop creep.
“It has been found that hops contain enzymes which convert more sugars and lower the final gravity of the beer and increase the alcohol.”
Bruce Turner of Urbanaut Brewing is a convert to oils – especially as a complement to pellets – and it’s a key ingredient in their biggest selling beer in Australia, Montrose Hop Oil.
Urbanaut used the oil as part of an entry for the annual Malthouse West Coast IPA challenge in 2019, but it didn’t go to plan initially.
“I added hop oil to an already heavily hopped beer. It was tasting fantastic in tank but after a week in keg, it started taking on a sweaty, onion flavour.
“On the day of the event I pulled the beer as it wasn’t what I had planned as a WCIPA contender. After time in keg/can it mellowed and we released it as Montrose Hop Oil.
“Surprisingly this has been our best-selling beer in Australia so we’ve been rebrewing it for the last 14 months to keep up with demand,” he said.
“We’ll continue using hop oil, the flavour addition is very punchy and absolute, aroma contribution can be amazing but can also change in package.
“I’d recommending using hop oil in small doses with hop pellets and testing in small batches whenever possible.”
Another use for oils is to correct a beer that doesn’t quite meet the flavour profile a brewer intended.
“I hate to use it as a corrective but there’s been an odd occasion where we need to increase hoppiness,” Ward said.
“But I feel if you’re adding it, it should be as a feature rather than as a corrective. “
Almost as important as adding it to a beer is adding the words “hop oil” to the label.
“Using it as a feature means marketing it as such,” said Ward. “It probably helps sell it as it’s something relatively new and people are always after something new.”