One of my favorite seasonals of the year is beginning to show up on taps and in bottles, and I couldn’t be happier. Fresh hop beers, also known as wet hop beers, are brewed with freshly picked hops during the height of the annual hop harvest, which typically lasts from late August through October, depending on the hop variety and growing region. No seasonal beer is aligned closer to the harvest.
Fresh hop beer was first commercially brewed by Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. nearly two decades ago, and the brewery continues to be an innovator in hopping methods.
A growing number of breweries have followed Sierra Nevada’s lead by brewing their own fresh hop beers, especially in the Pacific Northwest, which is the major hop-growing region in the United States. Breweries farther away from this region also brew fresh hop beers, but if they don’t have access to a nearby hop farm they have the added challenge of getting the wet hops all the way from the Northwest to their kettle within a short period of time. Great Divide Brewing Co. of Denver, for example, has its wet hops driven overnight – non-stop – in a refrigerated truck. On the morning of the scheduled hop delivery, brewers begin brewing Great Divide’s Fresh Hop Pale Ale, and they time it just right so that they’re ready to hop the beer just as the truck arrives.
Most fresh hop beers are ales, though some breweries make fresh hop lagers (usually based off of pilsners or festbiers).
These beers are called “fresh” because the hops are used right after picking, and they’re called “wet” because freshly picked hops have a moisture content of about 80% (after hops are dried in a kiln, their hop moisture content is typically between 8% and 10%).
At harvest time, the hop bines (not to be confused with vines) are cut from their trellises; hop cones (aka flowers) are separated from their stems and leaves; the cones are dried in a kiln; they are processed into pellets, plugs, extract, or they’re left as whole-cone hops; then they are baled or vacuum sealed and placed in cold storage for year-round use. If the hops are not processed shortly after picking (typically within 24 hours), they will become moldy and rotten.
Because you must use four times as many wet hops as dried hops to extract the same amount of bitterness, brewers often use pellet hops for bittering and wet hops toward the end of the boil for flavor and aroma. Doing this is much more efficient, it reduces unwanted vegetal flavors (from having too many whole-cone hops in the kettle), and it allows the wet hops to really shine where they have the most effect on the beer.