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.
Wet hops imbue beer with a “green” rawness that can turn some people off, but others crave these unique flavors every fall. Depending on the hops used, how many are used, and the techniques employed by the brewer, hop flavors and aromas can range wildly. Some examples include notes of herbs, earth, flowers, melon, grass, perfume, chlorophyll, white wine, fruit and more.
Brewers usually add the wet hops toward the end of the kettle boil (i.e., late-addition hops) and/or to a hop back, which is basically a container that holds a filter bed of hops. When the wort flows through the hops in the hop back, it picks up essential oils and aromas.
Oftentimes brewers will base a fresh hop beer recipe off a pale ale with just a low or moderate amount of bitterness. This platform allows the fresh hop flavors and aromas to really sing. A heavily bittered double IPA, for example, might overpower the delicate fresh-hop nuances.
Hops can be grown in most U.S. states. They grow best, however, between the 35th and 50th parallels in the northern and southern hemispheres, and they grow even better in certain microclimates, such as the Pacific Northwest. Here, there’s an ideal mixture of latitude, hot and long summer days with cool nights, mild winters (with a short freezing period that is actually needed during dormancy), rich soil and good-draining soil. These conditions result in longer growing seasons and higher yields than other parts of the country. This is part of the reason why almost all of the commercial hop cultivation in the United States takes place in Washington, Oregon and Idaho.
Before the Northwest established itself as the country’s main hop-growing region, hops were commercially produced in New York, California, Wisconsin, Massachusetts and elsewhere. In recent years, you may have read about new movements to re-establish – or begin – hop cultivation in these states and others. This is great news, but all of those states combined still only make up a small percentage of the U.S.’s commercial hop production, and most of the states outside of the Northwest do not have the facilities in place to process hops on a large scale.
Below are some interesting numbers to put things in perspective.
2014 U.S. HOP ACREAGE BY STATE (Source: 2014 Statistical Report from Hop Growers of America):
Washington = 28,858
Oregon = 5,410
Idaho = 3,743
- In 2014, Washington, Oregon and Idaho harvested a combined total of 38,011 acres. As a comparison, the 14 other hop-producing states harvested a combined total of just 899 acres, which accounts for only 2.3% of U.S. commercial hop acreage. Excluding the big three states (WA, OR & ID), Michigan had the fourth-most hop acreage with 300. Then came New York (150), Wisconsin (120), Colorado (94), California (65), …
- In 2014, the total hop acreage in the U.S. increased to 38,910, which was a 10.26% increase over 2013.
- Washington state alone produces roughly a quarter of the entire world’s hops.
- Anheuser-Busch owns one of the largest hop farms in the world, and it has more hop acreage than all of New Zealand’s hop farms combined. If you want to read about what goes into a hop harvest at this farm, here’s something I wrote last year.
2014 WORLD HOP ACREAGE / APROX. % SHARE
Germany = 42,770 / 37%
USA = 38,011 / 33%
Czech Republic = 11,021 / 10%
UK = 2,249 / 2%
Other European countries combined = 12,183 / 11%
China = 6,178 / 5%
The rest of the world combined = 3,508 / 3%
Be on the lookout for all sorts of fresh hop ales from local and regional breweries. Some have already been released, and many more are on the way. As far as I know, Aslan, Wander, Kulshan, Boundary Bay and Menace have all made or are making fresh hop beers this year.
And just a heads up: The Fresh Hop Ale Festival in Yakima is on Oct. 3, from 5 to 10 p.m.