In 1996, Steve Dresler of Sierra Nevada Brewing Company began a tradition that would ultimately lead to a tasty, glorious flood of unique and highly enjoyable beer. Dresler, on one of his beer research journeys, came across a European tradition of brewing beer with freshly harvested hops. So, being the pioneering person that he is, he decided to try a batch of the beer himself. What resulted was an extraordinary beer with fresh, vibrant flavors otherwise unattainable in brewing.
Hops used for brewing grow on vines and are the cone-shaped flowers of the plant Humulus lupulus. After harvest, in late August to mid-September, the hop flowers are usually dried before they are used in brewing. Fresh hop beer, however, is made with undried or “wet” hops. The trick is to get the hops to the brewer as quickly as possible since hops will begin to degrade within 24 hours of being picked.
Breweries like Sierra Nevada that are located in relatively close proximity to the hops growers send refrigerated trucks to the fields and rush the freshly harvested cones to the brewery. On the way, the truck drivers call the brewers to let them know how long it will take them to get there so they will know when to start the boil. As soon as the trucks arrive the fresh hops are added to the wort.
But, breweries that are further away from the hops farms must resort to other means of obtaining fresh hops. Many use overnight package services to rush the hops from field to brewery. That can be an expensive undertaking. Particularly when you consider that some breweries order as much as 800 pounds of the fragrant cones. According to the FedEx website, that would cost in the neighborhood of $5,000.
But, to many, the effort and the expense are well worth it. The beer that results from fresh is unlike other beers. Fresh hop beers are akin to the wine world’s Beaujolais Nuevo in that they are extremely limited to a certain time of year and are intended to be enjoyed immediately. Fresh hop junkies say they can taste the difference in the beer each year, too. The hops, like grapes, have different flavors from year to year depending on the growing conditions and weather.
Fresh hop beers have a more herbaceous character that is not present in brews made traditionally from dried hops. This character is much “greener” than and not as intense as full-blown dry-hopped beers. Wet, another word descriptive word used, hops retain all the volatile oils that are usually lost in the drying process. Wet hops bring a vegetal, earthy aroma to the beer and subtle taste notes that simply don’t show up in other beers.
Here in Jacksonville, several breweries produced fresh hop ales. Intuition Ale Works brewed Fresh Hop Ale to the delight of the Tap Room crowd. The flavor is redolent with freshness, soft hop notes, with the afore mentioned green, vegetal, chlorophyll-driven accents. As of this writing Intuition still had some of their Fresh Hop Ale left at the Tap Room. If you want to try it, I would get in there quickly. Engine 15 brewed two fresh hop beers this year. Unfortunately, I was unable to get out there and taste them before they were gone.
A few other fresh hop brews you might want to seek out and try are:
Sierra Nevada Northern Hemisphere Harvest features Cascade and Centennial hops from the Yakima Valley in Eastern Washington.
Sierra Nevada Southern Hemisphere Harvest is not available yet, but is set to debut in late April and will feature fresh Pacific Hallertau, New Zealand Motueka and New Zealand Southern Cross hops, all from New Zealand.
Lagunitas Wet Maximus provides lots of hoppy orange and grapefruit as well as some piney hops mixed in with rich caramel malt flavors.
Chatoe Rogue Wet Hop Ale packs six different varieties of wet hops into this subtle and restrained brew that is a perfect entry point into the wet hop style.
Freshness has long been a buss word for brewers and using freshly-picked hops is absolutely the best way to get that freshness into a bottle. But, since hops are so fragile, fresh hop brews can only be produced near harvest time. So, enjoy this year’s crop of fresh/wet hopped ales while you can otherwise you spend the next year pining for the freshest beer around.
Until next time.
Long Live the Brewers