Long before they haze up your double IPA, hops are humble, leafy, bright green bines that snake up wire-fitted, 18-feet high trellises in sprawling hop farms across the Pacific Northwest. Most are grown in Washington (about 71% of the total US crop), particularly in the Yakima Valley, though Oregon and northern Idaho have a fair amount of acreage as well (15% and 11%, respectively). And while dried hops are available year-round, this time of year – as late summer turns into early autumn – is when the annual hop harvest takes place, giving the brewing world fresh-off-the-bine hops to work with.
"Wet hops" – which are, as you might guess, hops that haven't been dried for preservation purposes – are sometimes used by brewers in the days and weeks after a harvest to make hop-forward beers that are the very epitome of freshness. They aren't made in great quantities, and their presence is fleeting since the window of opportunity for brewing with fresh hops is minuscule.
There are are plenty of downsides from a brewer's perspective, too: you need five to eight times the amount of hops by weight to make a given batch of fresh hop beer, making for a messy and inefficient brew day. They're less predictable, since it's nearly impossible to know exactly how the hops were treated as they came off the farm – for example, were they transported in the open-air bed of a truck on a sunny day, which would speed moisture loss? – and therefore nearly impossible to know exactly how concentrated the hops are and how they will perform.
But despite all that, brewers make the effort to craft wet hop (also known as "fresh hop" or "harvest") ales as both a celebration of the agricultural process and as a way to capture a unique kind of fresh hop flavor. As brewmaster Jeremy Kosmicki of Founders Brewing says, "during the drying and pelletizing processes, some of the delicate hop oils can be destroyed, so using them 'wet' is the only way to capture those flavors and aromas. I find wet hops to often have a fresh, ripe melon character that usually doesn’t come through after they’re dried."
So even though it's a bit of a pain to get them off the farm and into a brew kettle, Kosmicki (and many others) believe it to be well worth the effort. "It is quite the burden to use these hops," he says, "but it’s a labor of love."
Fresh hops are only available for a few fleeting weeks in late August and early September, once the cones growing on long bines have matured – typically the moisture level is then around eighty percent. At that point, the hops look fully grown and radiate their signature resinous aroma, and are ready to be cut down, so large picking machines, outfitted with elevated blades to cut the hop bines from the top, drive slowly through the field to slice the hops down. The bines are trucked back to a processing facility where they're loaded up into machinery to be stripped.
The specifics depend on what kind of equipment a particular grower has on their premises, but traditional picking machines operate by having a worker attach a hop bine onto a hook one by one, which is then moved up and along a conveyor belt through machinery that strips the hop cones and leaves away from the bine. The hops and leaves are then separated as they pass through a series of moving belts, leaving just the whole hop cones.
From there, most hops are transferred to an oversized kind of kiln (traditionally called an "oast"), where they're spread out across a giant floor through which hot air is forced. After several hours, the hops are dried out to a 10% moisture level, concentrating their potency for brewing and rendering them shelf-stable, and once cooled are often often crushed and pelletized. If properly stored – ideally vacuum-sealed and in cold storage – hops can stay fresh in this dried state for years.
Proponents of wet hop beers cite a uniquely fresh, "green" kind of note as a reason to love the style.”
But the hops that don't make it into the kiln are either picked up straight from the hop farms by local brewers, or shipped with rush delivery to brew houses across the country to take advantage of the once-a-year crop of fresh-off-the-bine wet hop cones.
The differences can be slight, and some say that particular varietal flavor – the resinous earthiness of Mosaic, or the lemongrass sweetness of Citra – is much less pronounced when using high-hydration fresh hops. But proponents of wet hop beers cite a uniquely fresh, "green" kind of note as a reason to love the style. If you want to try it yourself, look for a local version at your nearest taproom now, because once they're all gone, you've got another year's wait ahead of you.
Three to Try
Founders Brewing Co. Harvest Ale – Grand Rapids, MI
Thanks to Founders' large distribution network, this is one fresh hop ale that's somewhat easy to get ahold of come autumn, unlike many others that are brewed in such small batches or kept so local that they can come and go before you're able to get yourself a pint. There are no real style guidelines for this type of beer – "harvest ale" / "fresh hop ale" / etc. only denotes the use of wet hops, nothing more – but most, obviously, follow along the lines of hop-forward styles, and Founders' Harvest Ale is a classic IPA recipe clocking in at 7.6%. You'll find a particularly clean, fresh, green kind of flavor here, with a lightly earthy bitterness and a very soft fruit note.
Cowiche Canyon Fresh Hop Ale – Fremont Brewing, Seattle, WA
One of the perks of having your brewery just a quick drive away from the Yakima Valley in Washington, heart of hops country, is that you can get organic, freshly-picked Citra and Simcoe wet hops off their bine and into your brew kettle within 24 hours. That's what Fremont does with this ultra fresh ale, which packs a wallop of fresh orange and pine aroma, followed by juicy citrus and resinous spice on the palate. It's a worthy testament to the Washington hop industry – plus, a portion of all sales from the brew go towards a conservancy protecting the Cowiche Canyon, the beer's namesake nature reserve in south central Washington.
3 Floyds Broo Doo – Munster, IN
3 Floyds, and their legendary Pale Ale Zombie Dust, has been one of the biggest names in hoppy beer for many years, so to see them brew up a once-per-year fresh hop recipe is well worth attention. Broo Doo is loaded with orange and sticky pine sap notes, with an especially powerfully sweet, tropical, juicy aspect reminiscent of New England-style hop bombs, though with a firmer bitterness.
This piece was edited since publication to better express certain facts about the hop harvest.