It is hop harvest time in North America, and that means it’s time for wet hopped and fresh hopped beers to hit stores and draughts. It is also a great time to take a look at why the hop harvest is important to beer culture, and what exactly all these different hops mean for the new brews.
Harvest time, no matter the crop, is an exciting time, but few agricultural products have the kind of cult following that hops do. People in craft beer love hops. They are a very special, I’d even say borderline magical, flower that beer couldn’t exist without, and brewers love harvest time.
They get very excited about heading to the Pacific Northwest for “hop selection” when they get to tour the hop fields and sample the products of the growers before deciding what to buy for the next year of brewing.
They also get to score some fresh hops if their lucky, and the brews made with the first harvests of the season hit stores around October. It’s like seasonal craft beer that is actually in-sync with the seasons!
So, what is the difference between fresh hops and wet hops and regular hops? It is all about how the hops are processed. Hops are the flowers (more or less) of the humulus lupulus plant, and they contain aromatic oils and potent acids that, through various processes, contribute bitterness, aroma, and flavor to a finished beer.
Hops grow fast – up to a couple of inches per day at the peak of the growing season – and their long vines (actually, it’s not a vine, it’s a bine, but the difference is academic) grow up tall trestles. Come harvest time, the bines are cut down and fed through a machine that separates the hop cones from the rest of the plants.
These flowers are very fragile, and they begin to deteriorate (read: rot) very soon after they’ve been cut from their bine. In order to retard this deterioration, the vast majority of hops grown in the US are immediately, carefully dried in kilns. The dried flowers are then either pressed into huge bales and sold as “whole cone hops” to brewers, or – more commonly processed in another machine that shreds, compressed, and extrudes the hops into pellets. These pelletized hops are the most common form used by craft brewers.
Sometimes, just after harvest, hop farmers make “wet hops” available. Wet hops are cones that have been processed but not kiln-dried. They are best used within 24 hours of harvesting, and brewers go to great lengths to transport the crop to their brewhouses for use in a wet hopped beer. These wet hops add a vibrancy and they have a distinct presence in the beer that is much easier to taste than it is to describe. I liken it to the difference in using fresh rosemary or dried rosemary. Both will give you that resinous rosemary flavor, but the fresh leaves lend an obvious brightness or herbaceous quality that the dried leaves lack.
Working with wet hops is expensive and difficult. It is hard on the brewers, the equipment, and the accountants, and the majority of wet hopped beers never see the inside of the bottle and are instead draught-only offerings. There are a few packaged examples though, and Sierra Nevada’s Northern Hemisphere Harvest Ale was not only one of the first commercial wet hopped beers, but it is also the easiest to find in Los Angeles.
Also, The Bruery has just announced some pilot batches of wet hopped IPAs (available only at the Tasting Room!)
Fresh Hops are hops that are harvested and dried as normal, then used as quickly as possible. Like the dried herbs in your kitchen, dried hops fade in flavor and potency over time. Fresh hops are usually the first cones to be processed during the hop harvest, and they are best used within the first couple of weeks. It is still expensive and difficult, but the minimal amount of processing that these cones receive means they still provide much of the vibrant, fresh flavors that wet hops are so prized for.
There are many more fresh hop beers available bottled, including one of my all-time favorite beers: Sierra Nevada’s Celebration Fresh Hop IPA. Other examples are:
- Sierra Nevada Southern Hemisphere Harvest
- Deschutes Hop Trip and Chasin’ Freshies
- Great Divide Fresh Hop
So where does that lead dry hops? Well, it gets confusing as “dry hops” refers to both processed, dried hops like those normally used in brewing, and to a brewing process that provides all the rich hop aroma in your favorite IPA. “Dry hopping” as a verb refers to adding hops (wet, dry, fresh, whole, pellets, whatever) to already fermented beer. These “dry hops” are steeped, like tea, in the cold beer where the volatile essential oils responsible for all that glorious hop aroma infuse into the brew. When it is done right it can result in one of those beers that you’d almost rather not drink and just smell if forever. I’m looking at you Pliny (I said “almost”…)
So you can dry hop a beer with wet hops, and all wet hops are fresh hops.
Farmers Inspiring Brewers
In America we’ve been conditioned to think of beer as an industrial product made in factories to be homogeneous and unvarying. But the reality is that beer is an agricultural produce at the mercy of mother nature’s whims and the skills of the artisans who craft the raw crops into beer.
Hop harvest is as good a time as any to take a minute to remember that each barley crop is different, each hop crop a new challenge for craft brewers. And a new inspiration. I recently chatted with Eagle Rock Brewery’s Head Brewer Erick Garcia about his trip to the Yakima Valley for hop selection, and it was impossible to miss his enthusiasm and excitement for the harvest. He felt energized and inspired by his experience seeing the crops and the processing first hand, and like a chef cruising an early farmers market for the produce that would be in the specials at dinner, he was eager to let the hop crop influence some small-batch beers.
Even a thousand miles away from America’s prime hop growing region, the hop harvest gets LA’s brewers excited and inspired for their next batches of beer. And we should be too!
- All hop photographs via Wikimedia Commons