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Better when wet

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Breweries rush just-plucked hops to the kettle for the greenest seasonal pint: fresh-hopped beer.

By Tom Wilmes

Once hop crops reach prime moisture levels, there’s a scant 10-day harvest window, and when Tommyknocker Brewery operations manager Steve Indrehus gets the go-ahead, he’ll dispatch a team to hand-pick the hops and rush them back to the tanks in Idaho Springs, Colo. He needs to get the hops from vine to beer within 12 hours, or they’ll begin to oxidize and lose the fresh, resinous quality fresh-hopped (or wet-hopped) beers are known for.

So, as the late summer hop harvest approaches, Indrehus turns his eyes toward the sky.

“Two or three weeks out, I’m watching the weather to see if a cold front is coming in, or if it’s rained that day, I’m talking to the farm to see how the rain is going to affect their estimated pick time,” says Indrehus. “I might talk to the farmer as many as three times a day.”

Close communication between farmer and brewer is essential when making a fresh-hop beer like Tommyknocker’s Colorado IPA Nouveau, brewed with several hundred pounds of freshly picked, un-kilned “wet” hops.

With so many variables, it’s a logistical juggling act to work a fresh-hop beer into the busy schedule of a production brewery, but for Indrehus and the growing number of American brewers who have embraced the style, it’s a way to connect with beer’s agricultural roots and deliver a unique farm-to-glass product. There’s nothing like getting out of the brewery and into the hop fields, Indrehus says, working alongside the farmers and picking under a hot sun, fingers coated with resin.

Flavor-wise, fresh-hop beers are distinguished by a bright, grassy, chlorophyll-like quality and fruity esters. These beers are designed to showcase hop varieties in their natural state, and impart a different character than beers brewed with dried or pelletized hops.

“Fresh Hop Ales” were added to the 2008 Great American Beer Festival as a subcategory of the Experimental Beer category, a tactic competition manager Chris Swersey says is a “survival strategy” to ensure that there are at least six entries, the minimum required for judging. There were 16 entries that first year, and Swersey expects this year’s entries will surpass 30, due in part to the later date of this year’s festival (Oct. 11–13), which should give brewers enough time to produce and enter their beers. This is the first year fresh-hop beers will have their own category.

“These beers have become extremely popular,” Swersey says. “Hops have become a U.S. craft beer signature. Fresh hops from one grower in one brand produced once a year provide a unique terroir to which consumers respond eagerly and passionately.”

That notion of terroir—that hops take on unique characteristics from the conditions in which they’re grown—is a key appeal of fresh-hop beers and a reason why brewers often look locally to source their hops. It’s no surprise that fresh-hop beers first gained groundswell in the Pacific Northwest, where most of America’s hops are grown, but it’s increasingly cropping up in other regions as well, including in Colorado, Wisconsin, Michigan, Vermont and upper New York state. Not coincidentally, these areas have also seen an increase in small, boutique hop farms as the demand for local hops continues to grow.

Member farmers in the recently formed Colorado Hop Grower Association, for example, completely sold out of last year’s harvest in less than two months, according to agronomist and association cofounder Ron Godin, including several thousand pounds of fresh hops.

For brewers like Indrehus, this means that even more planning goes into making their fresh-hop ales.

“The second I tasted the beer and saw that it was successful, I called the farmer and doubled my order for next year,” he says. “There is some demand happening all the sudden on fresh hops, so it’s good to get your order in first.”

Sierra Nevada, one of the first American breweries to produce a wet-hopped beer with its once draft-only Harvest Ale (now Northern Hemisphere Harvest) in 1993, famously planted an on-site hop field next to its Chico, Calif., brewery.

“We wanted to remind people where beer comes from, that it’s an agricultural product that contains things of the earth that are a little bit different every year,” says the brewery’s Bill Manley. “The people who make the beer have cultivated the rhizomes and literally seen this beer grow. They have so much personally invested in the beer and try really hard to make it remarkable.”

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