As summer draws to an end and autumn peeks its head around the seasonal corner, the northern hemisphere is ready to start harvesting its crops. For us beer lovers, that means barley, wheat and hops. While malt is a subject for any day, hops is a more pressing and timely subject to discuss because it’s time for FRESH HOP BEERS! This is probably my single most favorite use of the hop. There is no more incredible use for a hop than to take it straight from the field and put it right into your beer. The flavors and aromas are so intense and beautiful and only available for about a month.
Hops are the cones from the female Humulus Lupulus plant. The cone has several items that make it the ideal seasoning for beer. The yellow oil packets hidden within the petals of the cone contain a substance called lupulin oil which is loaded with Alpha Acids, Beta Acids and Essential Oils. The Alpha Acids provide the bittering quality that helps to balance the sweetness of the malt flavor. The Beta Acids are probably the most important part, from a practicality standpoint. They provide the preservative, antimicrobial substances that allows beer to last longer than a few days without spoiling. The Essential Oils are the most delicate and volatile portion of the lupulin oil which is responsible for the flavor and aromas associated with hops.
To be able to use hops year round, they have to processed from their natural “wet” state into a more stable dry state. If anyone has gone to a home brewing store or been on a brewery tour, you’ve seen the two most common ways that hops are preserved so they can last for a year. If the hops were stored straight from the field, they’d start to compost themselves in a fairly short time and rot away to uselessness. To prevent this travesty, the hop farmer kiln dries the hops (I’ll go into more detail about the process in a few weeks. I’ll be going on a hop farm tour and will have plenty of pictures and details to share.) The dried hops can then be turned into pellets or bailed as whole cone hops. This allows the hops to be stable and usable all year-long. The problem with this is two-fold. First, the kilning process cooks away some of the more delicate and volatile aromas of the hops leading to a hop that is immediately less interesting than it was a few hours ago. Second, the dried hop will continue to gradually lose more delicate aromas as it ages. But, the advantages far out weigh the losses. Having access to quality stable hops on a year round basis allows us to consume our favorite beers all the time.
This is a term that is becoming more popular on beer labels. What it basically refers to is a beer that is made using hops that have just been kilned. The classic example is Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale. Every year, it is brewed immediately after the hop harvest with hops that have been freshly dried. This is also one of the reasons that Celebration is one of the last of the winter beers to arrive in stores (Which should please Seasonal Creep people). This means the hops are at the second most vital point of their brewing life cycle. The hop aromas are still intense, beautiful and delicate. ”Fresh Hop” beers are usually available from October through December. Keep your eyes peeled for these wonderful seasonal releases.
Wet hopped beers have to be one of my single most favorite beer releases of the year. The brewer takes the hops directly from the field without the hops being dried. Usually the hops go from the field to the beer in less than 24 hours. This means the beer receives almost all the hop flavor and aroma that the hop cone can offer. None of the volatile and delicate oils have been cooked off during kilning, nor have they degraded with age. This is the truest expression of the hop in beer. Most of the time, the brewer uses a very neutral malt and yeast character so they can project the hops front and center. The great thing about wet hop beers is that in most cases, they’re not too aggressively bitter, because it takes a lot of wet hops to get to the same level of bitterness as kilned hops. This makes them accessible to the majority of craft beer lovers whether you’re a hophead or not.
This list will depend greatly on where you live. I’ll try to include a few nationally available ones as well as the regional one’s I’m familiar with.
Sierra Nevada Northern Hemisphere Harvest - This beer is brewed with wet hops that are delivered directly from Yakima, WA to the brewery. Every year, this IPA style wet-hopped beer is by far my favorite of the wet hop release. Available Nationally.
Sierra Nevada Estate Grown Harvest Ale - This is a fun project. Sierra Nevada grows their own barley and hops on site at their brewery in Chico, CA. The results of this micro farm go directly into this beer. Again, this is in the IPA style but, the malt character is a little more pronounced because they want to show off both sides of their farm. Available Nationally in limited quantities.
Full Sail Hopfenfrisch Fresh Hop Pilsner - This is the first time this beer has been available outside their pubs. It’s unique in the wet hop world of pale ales and IPAs because it’s a Pilsner. Available in the Pacific Northwest on draft.
Deschutes Hop Trip – This is a great beer to use as an introduction to “wet hop” beers. This pale ale is easily approachable for the newly initiated craft beer fan but will also satisfy the hop lover. Available throughout the western United States.
New Belgium/Elysian Brewing Trip XIV - This collaboration was a huge hit last year and featured the hot new hop called “El Dorado.” They will again be working with the farm that developed this hop. Available in the western United States (possibly beyond). They just started bottling “The Trip” series (A collaboration between New Belgium and Elysian that is now in its 14th beer), so keep your eyes peeled at your favorite New Belgium or Elysian outlets.
This is just a small sampling of the Wet Hop beers available. I hope you’ll be able to find some of these where you live and, if you can’t find them, I hope your local brewery has one to offer. What are your favorite Wet Hop or Fresh Hop beers? What should people look out for in your neighborhood? Please let me know!
Also, remember, the most important thing about Wet Hop beers – DRINK THEM FRESH. DO NOT AGE THEM. You will lose all the delicate aromas after a while and completely miss out on the point of a wet hop beer.