Fall for beer lovers is synonymous with autumnal-colored, malty Oktoberfests, and pungent pumpkin-spiced ales, but it is also a time to celebrate the good fortune of the harvest. Harvest festivals are ancient, but the budding twist put on that tradition by American brewers―wet hop/fresh hop ale―has become a seasonal sensation.
Supplied with fresh-picked hops, brewers fire their kettle to capture the hop in its most natural state. The jaunt from field to wort is harried, lest the precious and essential components lose their verdant charm, as Mother Nature waits for no brewer. Wet hop ales are both earthly and ethereal, and composed to flaunt their delicate, juicy character. Craft beer offers an appreciable, firsthand connection to its core ingredients, and wet hop ale may the epitome of that alliance.
Rooting for America
Wild hops have been known and used for millennia in temperate northern climates, but the first citation of them in Europe as a specific crop comes from the Hallertau region of Bavaria in the 8th century (also home to one of the modern noble pedigrees, Hallertau Mittelfrüh). Botanical gruit ale mixtures of that period probably included hops, but by the end of the 11th century, German brewers were increasingly using them to stabilize and flavor their beer. Other continental brewers gradually incorporated them, noting the superiority of Germanic brews. Hopped beers simply kept longer and tasted better.
Hopped beer was allegedly introduced to Britain by the Dutch around 1400. Cultivated for brewing, especially in the southeast, hops were grudgingly accepted in much of England over the next couple of centuries. Kent, the Garden of England, became a significant hop-growing center.
From England, hops arrived in colonial New England in 1629, and were grown on a small scale. The first commercial crops were grown in Massachusetts in 1791. By the early 19th century, New York state had become the first major producer, followed by the Midwest, and eventually the West Coast, the future hop center of America, in the middle of the century. The drier, warmer climates in portions of Washington, Oregon, and California were unfavorable to downy mildew, the absolute scourge of eastern hop growers. By the early 20th century, America was exporting more hops than they were importing. Prohibition put a serious dent in this agri-business, a hangover that lasted until well after it was repealed in 1933.
It wasn’t until the 1970s and 80s before American hop farms saw a reawakening, coincident with the renaissance of craft brewing (also centralized in the Pacific Northwest). Cluster, Fuggles, Northern Brewer, and Brewers Gold had long been grown on American soil, but they were not as refined as centuries-old European cultivars. The hop that changed the landscape of ale brewing and hop cultivation in the United States came in 1972, when the Cascade variety was introduced. Developed by the USDA in Oregon as the first true American-bred aroma hop, and nourished on American soil and climate, it crossed Russian Serebrianker and Fuggles.
The nascent craft brewing industry suddenly had a handy supply of fresh, fragrant, and distinctly domestic hops for their evolving family of ales. Cascade’s versatility, coupled with the intoxicating and unique aromatic qualities, made instant converts of the new wave of brewers. Exquisitely suited to late kettle additions and dry-hopping with its beaming pine, floral, and citrus aromas, Cascade’s popularity has yet to ebb.
Galena, Nugget, Chinook, Willamette and Centennial cultivars were developed within a few years. The industry shows no signs of slowing down, either in production or diversity, and there seems to be new varieties cropping up annually.
This American epiphany unveiled the hoppy pleasures that Europe had known for centuries, and this hop-infused crusade gained momentum. More breweries and hopheads were born. Vibrant and hoppy American pale ale became a staple offering, and even brown ales, porters, and stouts were brewed with hops up front. Pale ales spawned an appreciation for hoppier IPA and eventually double IPA. Hops that lend themselves to heavenly aromatic applications are now many, and brewers are keen to advertise their favorites, alone or in synergistic blends. The love affair with hoppy beers was snug, but was there yet another way to deliver the resinous nectar to the masses? Indeed there was, and Sierra Nevada was at the helm.
A Fresh Approach
Little historical evidence exists to suggest that fresh hops were used much at harvest time, but in places like Žatec, Hallertau and Kent this must have been the case, as much brewing was done at this time of year.
Ignoring the seeming lack of precedent, Sierra Nevada introduced Harvest Ale in 1996, an innovative effort using wet hops―those that went straight from bine to wort. A rousing success, Harvest Ale became a seasonal. It is now known as Northern Hemisphere Harvest Ale. Cascade and Centennial hops are delivered directly from growers in the Yakima Valley of eastern Washington the day they are picked. This pioneering method caught on despite the cumbersome logistics and coordination between hop grower and brewer, with harvest, delivery and brewing all done within 24 hours. In time, those hurdles were overcome, and today there possibly a few hundred wet hop ales brewed across America.
Lucky are they who have easy access to freshly harvested hops, but proximity is of little deterrence to those inclined to brew such a beer. Some brewers have them flown in overnight to meet the de facto 24-hour timeline. Others use hops grown on their own turf, Sierra Nevada Estate and Weyerbacher Harvest Ale among them. Harpoon Glacier Harvest is made with Glacier hops grown in upstate New York. Founders Harvest Ale uses Pacific Northwest hops, but also a “smattering” of locally grown hops. Chatoe Rogue Wet Hop Ale is made with five different “first growth” hop varieties (Freedom, Revolution, Independent, Rebel and Liberty) homegrown on the Rogue Micro Hopyard in Independence, OR. Left Hand has Warrior and Cascade hops from Rising Sun Farms in Paonia, CO, delivered fresh to their kettle for Warrior IPA.
Clearly, timing is the only rule governing their use of the term “wet” or “fresh” hop ale, and you can bet that many of the deliveries are consummated during the brew session. In fitting demonstration of the brewer’s art, Yakima is home to the Fresh Hop Ale Festival every year on the first Saturday in October, only a few weeks from trellis to pint, smack in the epicenter of American hop country. The Hood River Hops Festival in Oregon pays similar homage.
What then, about the beers? In short, they are primarily modeled on the pale ale or IPA style, and known variously as wet hop, fresh hop or harvest ales. Grain bills are kept simple, keeping with the pale ale/IPA theme, to showcase the hops in pristine condition. They range roughly from 5 to 7 percent ABV, with IBU ratings from 35 to 70, and from modestly to aggressively hopped. To effectively capture the mercurial aromatics, post-boil, hopback and dry-hop implementation ensures that heat will have little deleterious influence on the fleeting, volatile compounds.
Wet hops present many of the notes we have become familiar with, albeit softer and more subtly, with less pungency. There is also a genuine effect on hop flavor. The variety used is quite diverse, creating a kaleidoscopic array of ales, making it impossible to give an encompassing description of them. The fresh, green, bright and vegetative character marries farmers’ market and artisanal brewer, virtual hops in a pint.
Chipper as wet hop ales are, they welcome some breathing room. They are at their ambrosial peak in October, but can hold their own into the winter months. Commonly bottled, they are excellent on draft and sublime on cask. It requires a system-busting fivefold measure of wet hops to get an effect commensurate with dried hops. This, coupled with the trouble that it takes to get them proves once again that brewers will spare no effort to charm the consumer, push the boundaries, and embrace the fellowship among their commercial brethren.
By the time you read this column wet hop ales may well have vanished, so be on the lookout next fall. Armed with this information, it should make any hop devotee long for autumn, when the kettles overflow and the brews burst with ripe, resinous hops―perfume of the Gods. Ceres herself must be proud.
Terrapin So Fresh & So Green, GreenABV: 6.7
Tasting Notes: One of the most respected breweries in the Southeast, Terrapin Beer Co. calls Athens, GA, home. Its wet hop ale is made with fresh Amarillo hops flown in from the Yakima Valley. Pouring brilliant amber, the beer’s aroma is floral with notes of rosemary and lavender, with a soft, fruity background. The flavor has bready malt behind citrus, a dry mouthfeel, and peppery, fleeting hop bitterness. Little lingers on the finish. Autumn can be hot in the South, perhaps Terrapin should add “Quenching” to the name. 50 IBU
Sierra Nevada Northern Hemisphere Harvest AleABV: 6.7
Tasting Notes: The original American wet hop ale, Northern Hemisphere is brewed with Cascade and Centennial hops from the Yakima Valley. Slightly hazy, orange-amber, with an aroma of grapefruit, orange blossom, a whiff of pine woods, and some toasty caramel. The head is dense, resinous and sticky. Quite dry and crisp in the mouthfeel, with a full, bittering finish and lingering grapefruit flavor. Sierra’s other wet hop offering, Estate Ale, is made with organic homegrown hops and pale malt. Both were still robust and flowery at Christmas. 66 IBU
Great Divide Fresh Hop Pale AleABV: 6.1
Tasting Notes: Brewed in Denver, Fresh Hop Pale Ale is golden-amber, and has mown hay, lemon and fresh, green herb in the nose. Nice stiff and clingy head. Medium-light in body and velvet smooth, it has an intense bitter grapefruit, grainy and gritty flavor. The finish is crisp with some of that silky resinous feel in the end. This brew is very well-balanced in the middle with a lot of hop flavor and a more than adequate mouthfeel and malt backbone―another exceptional offering from Great Divide. 55 IBU
Deschutes Hop TripABV: 5.5
Tasting Notes: Fittingly, this fresh hop ale comes from the rambunctious environs of the Deschutes River Valley in Bend, OR. Crystal hops, only six hours from field to kettle, come from Salem, OR. Almost six pounds per barrel are crammed into the wort. Hop Trip is full amber and offers up evergreen, mint and tropical fruit in the aroma. The body is medium, the profile bordering on amber ale with some malty notes and subdued hop bitterness. There is some bittersweet citrus in the flavor, followed by sweetish finish. This earthy wet hop ale comes in at a casual 38 IBU.