The Origins of Wet Hop Beers in America
Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from a feature story on wet hop beers, which are harvest beers brewed with unkilned hops that have to be shipped to the brewhouse in less than 24-48 hours. Read the whole story.
The origins of one of the earliest, and most influential, wet hop beers in America took place more than 15 years ago. Sierra Nevada brewmaster Steve Dresler was meeting with his good friend and hop merchant Gerard Lemmens when Lemmens asked him if he had ever considered making a beer with green hops.
“I was confused,” says Dresler, recounting the scene. “I thought he meant whole-cone hops. And he said, ‘No, no, with wet, fresh-picked, unkilned hops.’ He explained to me that in the United Kingdom sometimes small breweries would do special wet hop beers for festivals and that they would get hop aroma and oil qualities that were just off the charts, compared with kilned hops.”
While Sierra Nevada had been making Celebration Ale, brewed with fresh dried hops from the current year’s harvest since 1981, the brewery had never attempted this kind of beer, which would require getting the hops from the hopyard to the brewhouse and into a beer or cold storage within 24 hours, ideally.
“It was totally unheard of. No one was prepared to service a brewery in that way,” says Dresler. “It was uncharted grounds at the time.”
Intrigued, Dresler talked to Sierra Nevada founder and CEO Ken Grossman, and the next harvest season he worked with one of his hop suppliers (“He thought I was crazy”) to ship wet Centennial and Cascade hops via UPS Next Day Air, packaged in pellet boxes with holes poked in the sides to allow the hops to breathe.
“I was brewing that morning when the UPS guy pulled in, and I went out to meet him and he said, ‘I don’t know what the hell you guys have going on here today, but this is quite a delivery.’ And he opened up the back of the van and it was floor to ceiling, these brown boxes,” he says.
Having never brewed with wet hops before, Dresler also had to figure out how many pounds of wet hops would equal pounds per barrel of dry hops. He started with 5 pounds of wet hops for each pound of dry hops, and has since increased it to about 7 pounds for bolder flavor. Yet the logistics proved to be worth it, says Dresler. “The beer was phenomenal.”
In the first year, 1996, Sierra Nevada produced a small batch—about 100 barrels of Harvest Ale; today it brews about 2,000–3,000 barrels of what is called Northern Hemisphere Harvest Ale, a 6.7% wet hop IPA released every September, brewed with two semi-trucks’ worth of wet Cascade and Centennial.
Meanwhile, Sierra Nevada has continued to innovate: It also produces a second wet hop beer, Estate Ale, brewed with organic wet hops and barley grown at the brewery in Chico, as well as a line of harvest beers, featuring new and experimental hop varieties. It also flies up just-harvested fresh dried hops from New Zealand for its Southern Hemisphere Harvest IPA.
And what began as a simple question has developed into a popular harvest seasonal and a celebration of the hop harvest—first, in the hop country of Pacific Northwest, but also nationwide as breweries fly, truck and drive in wet hops.
This is an excerpt from a feature story in the November 2014 issue of All About Beer Magazine. Click here for a free trial of our next issue.