Mother Nature took a shine to beer lovers this year.
The 2019 hop harvest is looking like the best in years. And that should make it a banner year for fresh- and wet-hopped beers, a brewing subset that may not be as widely known as categories like IPA, stout, and lagers, but is one many drinkers eagerly anticipate.
“This year was mild and cooler, with more moisture than the previous year,” says Blake Crosby, CEO of Crosby Hop Farm in Oregon. “Yields were slightly above average. The hop quality [for all varieties] was really, really strong, and we saw some impressive analytics in terms of alpha and total oils. There was never a bad lot on the table, so to speak. In years past, the hop quality has always been good, but Mother Nature kicked in extra this year with excellent brewing values and great aroma.”
The brewing season for fresh- and wet-hopped beers is a very narrow one. Most hops are kiln-fire dried or reduced to hop pellets—dried, compacted versions of the hops that add bitterness, as well as citrus, pine, and other notes, to beers. These seasonal varieties, though, are shipped straight from the farm to the brew kettle, bypassing the kiln. The result is akin to using fresh herbs instead of dried herbs when cooking.
It doesn’t come without a few headaches. The moisture levels in fresh hops are as much as eight times as high as those in pellet or dried hops, so the physical amount needed per batch is much higher. This makes them more expensive to create, and they’re admittedly a bit of a pain for brewers (especially for a beer that’s only on the shelves for a few weeks), but they say it’s worth the extra effort.
“It’s a really low-volume beer for us, but we intentionally keep it that way,” says Jeremy Kosmicki, brewmaster at Founders Brewing Co. “Brewing it requires quite a bit of extra work [and] slows down our overall production. And the beer has a short shelf life so we want it in and out of the market quickly.”
Transportation difficulties also make it challenging to find some of the more boutique varieties of fresh-hop beers. Major brewers can shoulder the price of getting fresh hops sent to them. Smaller and midsize brewers that aren’t near a hops producer (roughly 75% of the country’s hop acreage is in Washington’s Yakima Valley) have a harder time getting their hands on the ingredient.
“There’s no substitute for a beer that’s made with 100% fresh hops,” says Sara Nelson, cofounder of Fremont Brewing in Seattle. “That, to me, is the Yakima Valley in a glass.”
Even in areas where fresh hops are readily available, many brewers don’t widely distribute those beers to retailers, because the fresh qualities of the beer have a short shelf life. Instead, they create small batches as a lure for local fans.
“It generates excitement, and it gets people in the taproom who may also buy other things,” Crosby says.
The taste of a fresh- or wet-hopped beer (the terms are interchangeable to beer tradesmen, Crosby says, but both are used in marketing and packaging) is notably different from that of a traditional beer. They’re most commonly used in ales and IPAs, but they also find their way into sours at Cascade Brewing, and Coalition Brewing used them in a shandy (a wheat beer blended with lemonade) this year.
Time is the enemy when it comes to fresh-hop beers, both from a brewing and drinking standpoint. When you taste a fresh one, you’ll find unique flavor characteristics, ranging from an earthy, grassy quality to ripe melon. But the longer the beer stays on shelves, the more those flavors fade.
Brewers, meanwhile, have to move hops from the farm to their brew tanks as quickly as possible, since the plants need airflow to keep oils and aromas at their peak. That can work to the advantage of smaller, local hop growers. Founders Brewing Co., for instance, only uses hops grown in Michigan, where its brew operations are based.
“We started making Harvest Ale back in the mid-2000s, before the Michigan hop scene had blossomed,” says Kosmicki. “We had to get the wet hops shipped overnight from the Pacific Northwest [an incredibly expensive undertaking], and still the hops were sometimes starting to degrade before we could get them in the kettle. With Michigan-grown hops, we can be using these hops within hours of them being harvested, and that really is the key when making these types of beers.”
Ready to give a wet-hopped beer a taste? Here are some great ones we’ve sampled so far this season.
Founders Harvest Ale The aroma is the first thing to hit you as you pour this wet-hopped offering: It’s a hint of sweetness that raises your hopes. The first sip explodes with big, juicy hops that bring melon to mind. Earthy and wonderfully balanced with a good malt backbone, delivering yet another dash of sweetness.
Rogue Coast Haste Boozy and sweet, this is a fresh-hopped New England–style IPA that is extremely full-bodied and loaded with tropical flavors. It’s a bit harder to detect the earthiness of the fresh hops here, as the citrus taste tends to dominate, but that doesn’t mean it’s not still a fantastic beer.
Migration Brewing Colder Than Cold A rare wet-hopped farmhouse-style saison, this is a light, sessionable beer that brings out the fresh-hop flavor and aromas, but leaves the vegetable qualities behind. It’s light-bodied and yeasty and a great beer for a late summer night.
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