January is a month boldly marked on any beer lover’s calendar, an annual rite of passage due the same reverence as a national holiday. It’s the time of year when Troegs Independent Brewing releases Nugget Nectar, an excessively dry-hopped imperial amber ale. Fans travel up and down the East Coast for this seasonal offering, loading up because there is a good chance it will be out of stock by March.
Billed as an explosion of pine, resin and mango, Nugget Nectar is bursting with floral aromatics. Some fans claim to taste hints of rotten grapefruit – and, yes, that’s a compliment. During their recent Behind the Beer event at Standard Tap, John and Chris Trogner discussed their most sought-after beer.
“Nugget, to me, is pine. If you can grab a hold of a really nice nugget flower, that’s what you want,” said Chris Trogner, when describing Nectar’s leading hop. “It’s soft and piney, slightly dank and full of citrus.”
While Nugget gets all the headlines, there are several hops working together and holding each other’s hands throughout the brewing process. In addition to Nugget, there is liberal use of Columbus, Tomahawk, Warrior, Palisade and Simcoe hops.
“Nugget was the dominant hop variety, so we were trying to get as many as those oils out as we could,” said John Trogner. “So we were literally crushing the hop and squeezing it out. You see the logo with the hop cone dripping into the glass? We came up with the name late one night at a bar in Hershey.”
On this night, guests are treated to three different variations on Nugget Nectar: on draft, on cask and on nitro. There is also a “welcome pour” of Hopback Amber, which the Trogner brothers refer to as Nugget Nectar’s “little brother.” Featuring Cascade, Willamette, Nugget and Crystal hops, Hopback is a beautiful bouquet of pine and grapefruit.
“Twenty-three years ago, we made an ESB [Extra Special Bitter]. It was called Fletcher’s Better Bitter, named after Chris’ dog,” said John. “It was the second beer we ever made, and we couldn’t give it away. We re-brewed it, changed the name to Hopback and increased the aromatics.”
Everything changed after Hopback. Their worst-selling beer became their best-selling beer.
“Now, we could actually make our payroll and Troegs started to grow,” said Chris. “That was where we got our roots in the ground.”
Moderating the evening was noted beer scribe Josh Bernstein. Those in attendance received an autographed copy of his new book, “Complete IPA: The Guide to Your Favorite Craft Beer.” He broke down the art of tasting beer and talked about the importance of consistency.
“We taste beer in different ways,” said Bernstein. “Take a sip, swirl it in your mouth, drink it and then blow out your nose. By doing that, you’ll feel and experience the different aromatics.”
William Reed, owner of Standard Tap and President of Philly Loves Beer, asked a question regarding the sharp decline in hop harvests. It’s a serious topic in the industry, leading many brewers to panic because they are unable to get the specific strains crucial to brewing their flagship beers.
(As Reed is talking, a guy points across the room and tells his friend: “That’s the hammer, the Hammer of Glory! The HOG! It leads a parade every year during Philly Beer Week.”)
Bernstein, unfazed by the HOG’s interruption, quickly raised his tulip glass and pointed to the ingredients inside. He referenced a well-known cidery that had to rearrange their entire portfolio when they couldn’t get their hands on Nelson Sauvin hops.
“When you go to buy a beer at a bar, you want that beer to taste the exact same way as the last one you had,” said Bernstein. “You don’t go to your favorite restaurant and expect your burger or fried chicken to be a new recipe. You kind of want that same exact flavor. So if you don’t have those same ingredients available, what do you do? So, we’re seeing a change in behavior.”
The Trogner brothers aren’t worried about any of that. At Troegs, they forge strong symbiotic relationships with hops growers to protect themselves against scarcity. Two years ago, they even experimented with cultivating their own variety of hop called Nugget Zilla, something John stumbled upon while walking the fields of the Yakima Valley.
“We’re not the brewery that is always chasing down the most popular hop all the time,” said John. “We work directly with the farms to find hops that they can grow really well. It can take 10 years, as pests become problematic, with trying new hops out and breeding.”
Soon after, a Nugget Nectar cask ceremoniously appeared. Another person in the crowd got a bright idea: Can you use the Hammer of Glory to tap that firkin?
To which a smiling Reed replied: “Maybe later.”
Chris laughed and took a long swig from the cask, soaking his tongue in all those fresh hops.
“I’m getting Columbus, a little dankiness, and then you get that mango earthiness from the Simcoe.”
John explained how the cellarmen at Troegs like to play tricks on the owners, adding random hops to test their taste buds. All in all, John and Chris are pretty good hop detectives. The key is being able to strike a delicate balance, kind of like a chef infusing different flavors and ingredients in the kitchen.
“You have to be careful because it is very volatile,” said John. “If you use certain hops with certain techniques, you start to smell this vegetal kind of leafy, earthy, not so deliciousness. You can’t just shove them all in!”
Sound advice for a brewer. But, not necessarily for a drinker. With February halfway over, you better shove as many cases of Nugget Nectar in your fridge as you can before it’s out of stock until 2018.