Exploring Hops with Sierra Nevada

Hopheads like myself have another reason to rejoice as craft brewing pioneer Sierra Nevada has unveiled three new beers for 2015 that explore the limits of the tasty conical flower.

The trio of hoppy beers was revealed at a launch party last Thursday inside the warm confines of Kiabacca. The new craft beer and pizza bar was opened in New York City's Hell's Kitchen neighborhood only weeks ago by the same owner of Pony Bar, another craft beer bar that is right next door. I attended the event and while I was more than happy to sample the beers inside the bar, I couldn't help but wonder how they pair with a cigar.

Introducing the beers at the event was Ken Grossman, who founded Sierra Nevada with Paul Camusi in 1980 (Grossman bought Camusi out in 1998). His son Brian, who's taken on an increasing amount of responsibilities with the business in the past few years, was also there. Based in Chico, California, the brewery is best known for its flagship Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, a beer many consider the model for the American pale ale style. Last year, the company expanded its operation to the East Coast when it opened a brand-new brewing facility in Mills River, North Carolina.

Ken and Brian first talked about Nooner Pilsner, Sierra Nevada's hoppy version of a classic German pilsner and the brewery's first year-round lager offering. Clear and the color of straw, the beer finishes crisp like a pilsner, but offers big hoppy notes of grass and herb, with a hint of grapefruit during the swallow. While a great beer, the low-alcohol content and flavor profile would be better paired with food than a cigar.

Next up was Beer Camp Hoppy Lager, a spring seasonal that is a touch spicier and more malty than the Nooner. Sierra Nevada often invites devotees of the brand to its brewery in Chico, California, to collaborate on a small-batch beer. Sierra plans to release one of highlights from the past year's creations each spring in a series called Beer Camp. Hoppy Lager is this year's selection. The beer pours an amber/orange color and offers big notes of citrus and hoppy hits of resin and grass.

The last beer of the night, Hop Hunter IPA, was also the most intriguing, not only for its complex flavors, but the methods employed to brew it.

In the Northern Hemisphere, hops are usually harvested in late August and early September and are then dried in a kiln so as to preserve their precious oils, thus allowing brewers to use them year-round. Some beers, though, are created by being "wet hopped," meaning they have been brewed with fresh, un-kilned hops. Wet-hopped beers typically taste more "green," as they showcase immense hop flavors and show off the nuances of the cone flower. The hops used to create these beers, however, must be picked and brought to the brewery as fast as possible and used immediately. Wet-hopped beers, therefore, can only produced during the hop harvest season.

Sierra Nevada Head Hunter IPA.

Sierra has turned the brewing game on its head and developed a way to wet-hop beers year-round. The company is using a method usually seen in the perfume industry: steam distillation. Immediately after picking the hop crop, steam is then passed through the cones and the essential oils of the hops are collected. Hop Hunter IPA is the first beer from Sierra to be brewed using this new method.

Sierra Nevada Hop Hunter IPA (6.2 percent alcohol by volume, $8.99 per six-pack)

APPEARANCE: Pale gold, transparent liquid with a frothy head that dissipates but returns with a simple swirl of the glass.

NOSE: Floral and citrus notes form the base of this bright bouquet. Sweet hints of honeydew and cantaloupe come in, with undertones of freshly cut grass.

PALATE: Intense hoppy notes of pine, citrus (lemon, grapefruit) at the start, with different flavors emerging with every swallow. Finish is long and hoppy, but never overly bitter.

CIGAR PAIRING: Nat Sherman Timeless Collection Churchill (Dominican Republic, $7.50, 91 points, No. 24 Cigar of 2014) Sweet and cedary, this Churchill gradually develops notes of coffee, black pepper and fresh green apple as it's smoked. There are touches of leather and earth on the finish.

I chose this cigar because I thought the black pepper and fresh apple flavors it offered would meld well with the intense hoppy notes of the beer. It was a good decision. The black pepper cooled the hoppy notes, coaxing out flavors that weren't there before—grapefruit, hibiscus, honeydew. Meanwhile the beer ramped up the cigar's apple note. Solid pairing.