Almost since the inception of American craft beer, innovative brewers have perpetuated an arms race of escalating hoppy beers. From the days when IBUs reigned to today’s haze-obsessed brewers devising the next juice-bomb, hops have been synonymous with craft beer. The need to get bigger, bolder flavors not only drives the development of new styles and, indeed, whole new varieties of hops, but it also keeps engineers busy developing an arsenal of implements dedicated to getting hops into beer. Some of the biggest hops bombs on offer are made with the help of hopbacks, hop rockets, hop cannons, hop torpedos, or hop guns—all different solutions for getting those pungent essential oils into today’s brews.
In San Pedro, California, home of the Port of Los Angeles and the battleship-turned-museum the U.S.S. Iowa, Brouwerij West looks to improve the quality of the hoppy beers that are fueling their growth. Launched with a focus on Belgian styles and brewing traditions in 2010, the Brouwerij West brand was first operated as a “gypsy brewing” project by Founder and Brewmaster Brian Mercer before space in San Pedro’s navy warehouses was converted to a modern, solar-powered brewery that opened in 2016.
More Aroma and Flavor, Fewer Pellets
About three years after opening, Brouwerij West has added a line of on-trend hazy IPAs to the portfolio, and the brewery is operating at capacity, making about 2,500 barrels a year. Mercer hopes to double that production with strategic expansion to the brewery, and the first phase includes more 90-barrel fermentation vessels, a centrifuge, in-line carbonation capabilities, and a piece of gear purpose-built for dry-hopping: the BrauKon HopGun.
Everything for a brewery is a costly investment, Mercer says, and when he had the opportunity to spend some capital for brewery improvements, he first thought of adding a canning line to package the popular hazy IPAs and the brewery’s flagship dry-hopped Pilsner. But with long manufacturer lead times for a new canning line, Mercer would have to wait to see a return on the investment, and he’s happy with the existing relationship with the mobile-canning service that’s handled the brewery’s shift from large format bottles to 16-ounce cans. He decided instead to help fund the later phases of expansions by increasing the brewery’s efficiency.
“If we can make more beer,” Mercer says, “then we can buy more toys.”
The idea behind the HopGun is to get more hops character into the beer in less time and with adding less hops. On paper, it’s win-win-win, providing better efficiency and better quality, reduced dissolved oxygen (DO) levels in the finished beer, and a safer working environment for the brewers, but first Mercer and his team needed to get to the top of the HopGun’s learning curve.
Designed and built by German brewing- equipment manufacturers BrauKon, the HopGun seems like a simple improvement to the dry-hopping process. Instead of a brewer climbing to the top of a fermentation vessel and dumping a bag, box, or bucket of hops pellets into the top port, the hops are added to the HopGun. Then the beer is pumped into the HopGun under pressure, the hops pellets are caught in a whirlpool of sorts inside the HopGun and dissolve to create a pungent slurry. This mixture of beer and hops is then pumped from the HopGun back to the fermentation vessel, and the beer is recirculated for anywhere from one to four hours.
The result, according to BrauKon, is “a consistent, efficient dissolving of the oils and aromas from hops pellets.” The HopGun allows the dry-hopping additions to be purged with CO2, and the closed-loop setup means less oxygen is introduced to the beer, and there’s a more consistent dissolution of hops pellets than with traditional methods.
One More Task
“It is so frustrating to a brewer to see intact hops pellets after dry hopping,” says Tim Harbage, Head Brewer at Figueroa Mountain Brewing Co. in Buellton, California. Figueroa Mountain added a HopGun sized for 100-kilogram hops additions with their new 60-barrel BrauKon brewhouse in mid 2018, and the brewing team took several months to develop their standard operating procedure for the HopGun. Used primarily on batches in the brewery’s larger fermentation vessels (up to 240-barrel tanks), the biggest downside of the HopGun, Kevin Ashford, the brewery’s creative director, says, is the time to get it cleaned and set up to run. “It’s one more task added to a brewer’s task list,” he says. The added time and effort don’t make sense when working with smaller tanks and smaller hops additions. “You should be feeling pain from your dry-hop routine before you add a HopGun to the equation,” he says.
It can also be a tricky system to integrate into your cellar, as the Brouwerij West team found out on the third batch processed with their HopGun. “It’s a bit like Apollo 13,” Mercer says, and not just because of the HopGun’s rocket-like shape. Once the vessel is loaded and purged and the beer flow starts, you feel like you’re on your own, and any problems that emerge have to be solved with quick thinking and ingenuity.
Get something wrong and excess pressure will blow off from a port at the top of the HopGun, spraying a hops-dense slurry onto the cellar floor.
Singing in the Hops Showers
“We took a lot of hops showers during our first batches,” says Max Shafer, Head Brewer at Roadhouse Brewing Co. in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Roadhouse has a pair of HopGuns, one for their 7-barrel brewpub system and another matched with the 30-barrel production brewery.
“It was a lot of trial and error at first, and it helped to have two people working on it,” he says. But once the wrinkles in their process were ironed out, the benefits outweigh the extra time spent cleaning the HopGun. Shafer says they’ve reduced their dry-hop additions by up to 30 percent for some beers, and residency time in fermentation vessels has dropped from five days to just two or three. “Our guys aren’t on ladders opening the tops of tanks anymore,” he says, and the added safety, better quality, and increased efficiency from the HopGun is “totally worth” the initial challenges.
After a couple of hops showers of his own and a lengthy day of monitoring pressures and flow rates through the HopGun, Brouwerij West’s Mercer was still feeling excited about his HopGun. Before he purchased the unit, he’d traveled to Jackson Hole to shadow the Roadhouse team using their HopGun, and he knew patience in dialing it in would be rewarded. Based on what he saw—both via analysis of DO levels and sensory evaluation—in the first two batches of hazy IPAs dry hopped with the HopGun, he has committed to the technology and is even considering purchasing a second, larger HopGun.
“We get more of what we want from the hops with less contact time, and we’re lowering DO and finishing beer quicker,” Mercer says. Making better beer is his number one priority, and the HopGun is providing that with “a more intense hops aroma and a cleaner, brighter hops flavor,” and, he hopes, better package stability.
While the learning curve is frustrating and time-consuming, the production team planned for challenges with extra time in the schedule and a willingness to dump any batches that were not up to standards. Mercer is also hiring a new head brewer and an experienced cellarman to fill gaps in his team’s knowledge and skills. “We’re only in our third year brewing here,” he says. “We don’t have it all figured out.”
HopGun with a Twist
At Left Hand Brewing Company in Longmont, Colorado, the HopGun is a trusted piece of hardware. One of the largest units produced by BrauKon with a hops capacity of 200 kilograms, Left Hand’s HopGun is hard plumbed into the cellar and fully integrated with the brewery’s control and automation software. Director of Brewing Matt Thrall says a change in Left Hand’s portfolio with more focus on dry-hopped beers necessitated a change in dry-hopping techniques, and a good relationship with BrauKon meant the HopGun was the right solution for the brewery. They’d had good experience with BrauKon support in the past. “We knew what we were getting into and knew it would take some time to get our process down,” Thrall says. “But BrauKon is a smaller company, and if something goes wrong, you can pick up the phone and call Germany.”
Left Hand runs their HopGun a little differently. Besides being computer controlled and hard piped, the big gun has two pumps to operate it—one to push and one to pull the beer. “It’s phenomenal,” Thrall says. “It’s the best way we’ve found to add flavors to a beer.” After dialing in the system and working with the sensory program, Thrall has reduced the dry-hop additions by 15 percent and plans to reduce them further.
But it’s not just hops that are going into the HopGun at Left Hand; they also use it to add coffee to beer. Prior to the HopGun, coffee additions took several brewers five to seven days for each batch. Using the “coffee cannon” as they call it, one brewer can do the coffee addition in about six hours—and it takes half the coffee to get the flavor they’re looking for. Next up, Thrall plans to try the HopGun with chiles for the brewery’s annual chile porter.
Old School, New Technology
Mercer has long had reverence for the breweries of Belgium, and he was inspired by visits to Rochefort and Rodenbach. He learned not just to respect traditions but to embrace technology as even the Trappist breweries had.
“You visit the Old School breweries in Belgium, and you expect to see the old methods, but really these are cutting-edge breweries,” he says. With Brouwerij West, Mercer is compelled to keep improving the product, and the HopGun is the latest addition to his toolkit. “Brewing is art and science,” he says, “but it’s mostly science, and I want to take the path that science and engineering provide.”