Craft Brewers Go Hi-Tech

craft hop

The dirty secret behind today’s IPAs: There’s little dirty about them. Brewers are sourcing their signature bitterness in sterile labs, not muddy hop fields.

The hop plant contains oils and resins that give beer its bite; lab-made extracts of those flavorful and bitter oils and resins were once relegated to Big Beer’s industrial toolbox, while craft brewers stuck to cramming whole cones of the hop vine into the brewing kettle. No more. Not that industrial hop extraction is anything new. In the 1870s, the New York Hop Extract Company supplied brewers with hop resins made by soaking flowers in gasoline. Today, labs use liquid CO2 as a solvent, boiling hops to extract oils and then venting the gas away. The liquid that remains is clean, shelf-stable and concentrated, easy to preserve and to ship. “Extracts have better longevity [than raw hops], particularly in countries with developing logistics or harsher climates,” said Alex Barth, CEO of John I. Haas.

Still, the new wave of extraction is small. Robert Bourne of Extractz makes variety-specific extractions in an Ohio garage. He supplies a few local brewers but admitted he’s on the fringes: “It’s more of a home-brew thing.” Even when they come from a garage, extracts haven’t quite shed their industrial associations. The Hop Stoopid label shows a rustic barn; the fine print proclaims the “mountain of extracts” in the beer. “People read the label and call us up saying they won’t drink it,” says brewmaster Jeremy Marshall . “They think it’s some industrial, nonnatural thing.” Others maintain that whether from a leaf or a vial, flavor trumps all.

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