It’s Official: Hops are Hot (and Wet)!

This comes from the Wall Street Journal via the Pittsburgh Post Gazette via the Internet, but we found it interesting and didn’t want to risk losing it.

To toast a new crop, brewers roll out ‘wet hop’ beer

By Conor Dougherty, The Wall Street Journal

First there was Beaujolais nouveau. Now comes beer nouveau.

The end of the growing season has been celebrated by everyone from apple growers to winemakers, but lately brewers have started marking the renewal of their own annual cycle, with beers that are brewed with hops picked only a few hours before. Called “fresh hop,” “wet hop” or harvest beers, they begin appearing in late September, typically on tap and lasting only until the kegs run dry.

Harvest ales started showing up in the last decade or so in hop-growing regions like Northern California and the Pacific Northwest. But as the style catches on and more farmers plant hop yards, the beer is increasingly found outside of its traditional home. Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. sold its Harvest Ale in all 50 states last year, up from five in 2000. Late next month Dogfish Head Craft Brewery in Milton, Del., will release its first fresh-hop beer, Fed-Extra Mild, an English-style ale with two varieties of hops: one freshly picked and shipped overnight from the West Coast, and a second grown in an employee’s yard. And while the majority of wet-hop beers are poured from tap handles, some brewers are now bottling it. Denver’s Great Divide Brewing Co. started bottling its Fresh Hop Pale Ale three years ago, and now the brew is distributed in seven states including Texas, Florida and Massachusetts.

The season’s first hops are also cause for festival-style celebration. At O’Brien’s Wet Hop Beer Festival held at San Diego’s O’Brien’s Pub, bar owner Tom Nickel plans to serve 35 beers this year, double the number at the inaugural event two years ago. (New names at last year’s festival included Hop Trip from Deschutes brewery of Bend, Ore., and Last Hop Standing from Blue Frog Grog & Grill in Fairfield, Calif.) While so-called craft brewers are leading the trend, industry giants have also taken notice: Last year an Anheuser-Busch brewery in Fort Collins, Colo., released its Front Range Fresh Harvest Hop Ale for festivals and at Anheuser-Busch tour centers.

These beers are the latest expression of brewers’ obsession with hops, the sticky green cone of the Humulus lupulus plant that gives beer its bitter flavor. Classically, beer has four main ingredients — the others are water, yeast and grain, typically barley. Before hops, brewers had balanced the sweet taste of malted barley with herbs including yarrow, coriander and ginger. Around 900 years ago they began adding hops, which imparted flavor and also served as a preservative.

Much more recently, hops became a rallying point for U.S. craft-brewers — a movement that took off in the 1980s as a reaction to the big-brewery beers that critics dismissed as too light, too watery, and too stingy on the hops. Bitter became better for a subset of craft-brew drinkers, many of whom tend to measure a beer’s worth in proportion to its hoppiness. The measuring stick is the International Bittering Unit, or IBU, with the biggest beers logging in at 100 plus IBUs. Mainstream brews from Anheuser-Busch, Miller and Coors are typically around 10 or 20 IBUs.

The hop infatuation has resulted in a game of chicken among brewers, who have continued their effort to out-bitter the next guy — as evidenced by beer labels that boast mixed hops, extra hops or triple hops. Stone Brewing Co. in Escondido, Calif., calls its Stone Ruination India Pale Ale “a liquid poem to the glory of the hop!” Delaware’s Dogfish Head has pioneered a pair of hop-enhancing technologies, including a “continuous hopping machine” that adds hops gradually over up to two hours of brewing instead of throwing some in at the beginning, middle and end, as is customary. The brewery also invented a method for delivering a final hoppy hit to kegged beer by running it through a hop-stuffed chamber before it hits the pint glass. Dogfish Head calls the device Randall the Enamel Animal, and some bars and beer stores have also started serving “Randalled” beers.

But for a few months in the fall, brewers stop worrying about more hops and focus instead on fresh hops. When first plucked from its stalk, a hop flower is green and about 60 percent water by weight. For brewing purposes, hops are usually dried and refrigerated, or made into pellets that resemble rabbit food. Wet-hop beers use flowers that have been picked just hours before, so they still possess the volatile flavors that are lost during processing. Brewers compare beer made with these moist hops to a meal cooked with just-picked herbs — entirely unlike one made with dried oregano and parsley from the back of the pantry.

A fresh-hop beer can often, in fact, be less bitter than a corresponding version with dried hops, and instead is powered by floral, citrus tastes. The retained oils line the inside of the mouth and have a tinge of greenish, vegetal flavors. (Many brewers recommend drinking their wet hops with a glass of water.) It’s easy to taste the difference between a normal brew and a fresh-hop version — though that isn’t always a good thing. “If you’re not careful you can end up with a beer that tastes like lawn clippings,” says Garrett Oliver, brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery.

Brewing, of course, has a long tradition of following the seasons. Before refrigeration, beermakers were eager to get their hands on the first hops of the season. They tended to make beers in the fall that highlighted them, before switching to maltier beers as stored hops lost their character. (Germany’s Oktoberfest is a slightly different story: The two-week festival now marks the fall with copious amounts of beer, but got its start as a wedding celebration.)

Randy Mosher, a beer author and instructor at Siebel Institute of Technology, a Chicago brewing school, says there’s little historical precedent for using hops within a few hours of picking. “What people are trying to do with craft beer is put people in touch with their food again, and remind them that they’re drinking an agricultural product,” he says.

Fresh-hop beers started popping up about a decade ago when Sierra Nevada brewed its first Harvest Ale. The style attracted other brewers, and there are now several dozen versions available. Sierra now makes three wet hop beers, including one using “estate grown hops,” while Steelhead Brewing Co. in Eugene, Ore., last year made a pair of fresh-hops, “Fugglerama GBP 1” and “Fugglerama GBP 2,” with two varieties of Fuggle hops. There’s even a nascent movement among brewers to grow their own: Today in Kearney, Neb., Trevor Schaben, owner of Thunderhead Brewing, plans on heading out to a hops field 10 miles from his brewpub to pick with a handful of customers (it’s the brewpub’s second attempt at a wet hop).

Though wet-hop beers inspire brewers’ creative fancies, they also pose a logistical challenge. Many breweries are set up to use pellet hops, which are much easier to filter out than the leftover plant matter from wet hops. A wet hop requires a special filter or trapping system to keep the debris out of the finished product.

But the bigger problem is getting the hops in the mix before they’ve spoiled. Victory Brewing Co. contracts a refrigerated truck to collect hops from a grower in upstate to New York then drive straight back to the brewery in Downingtown, Pa. Come fall Russian River Brewing owner/brewmaster Vinnie Cilurzo gathers about a a dozen friends and family members to pick hops on a quarter acre plot a few miles from his brewery in Santa Rosa, Calif. As they pick he begins brewing, then throws in the hops as they arrive from the field. Sierra Nevada uses two varieties — Centennial and Cascade — that have different picking periods that overlap for a day or so. The brewery sends a truck to collect the last of the Cascade harvest, then to another field to collect the first of the Centennials, then back to the brewery in Chico, Calif. “I never know what day it’s going to be,” says brewmaster Steve Dresler.

And for brewers who don’t have their own hop farm, this often means paying to have fresh hops sent overnight, multiplying their hop tab. One thousand pounds of hops from Washington state grower Yakima Chief, for example, runs about $2,800 for overnight delivery, compared with $400 for the same amount by slower shipping. Because fresh hops contain so much water, brews that incorporate them can require several times more hops by weight, boosting the price even more. Russian River charges $165 wholesale for a keg of its HopTime Harvest Ale, $50 more than it charges for its Imperial Pale Ale, and $6 per pint in its brewpub, $2 more than it charges for other beers.

But for calendar-watching beer drinkers, the once-a-year brew is worth the splurge. “It’s like being able to get vegetables from the farmer’s market,” says beer aficionado Richard Sloan, a computer programmer from San Diego. “You better be there, or they’re gone.”

A Taste of the Harvest

Brewers and brewpubs will release fresh-hop beers starting in late September, mostly on tap. Here is a sampling:

BREWER/LOCATION: East End Brewing Co. Pittsburgh
BEER NAME: Big Hop Harvest Ale
COMMENT: This year-old brewery will release its second wet-hop beer this year. The Big Hop Harvest is a variation on the brewery’s India Pale Ale, a hoppy brew called Big Hop IPA, but has 7 percent alcohol, compared with Big Hop’s 5.8 percent.

BREWER/LOCATION: Left Hand Brewing Co. Longmont, Colo.
BEER NAME: Warrior IPA
COMMENT: Most wet-hop beers are poured from the keg; this Colorado brewery sells its variety in bars as well as in 22-ounce bottles distributed to 15 states. The beer is named for the Warrior hops the brewery gets from Washington state.

BREWER/LOCATION: Rogue Ales Newport, Ore.
BEER NAME: Hop Heaven
COMMENT: For three years, Rogue has brewed a wet-hop beer using Newport hops grown on a farm about two hours from the brewery. This year the company is switching to Centennial hops, and the resulting beer will be ultra-bitter, the brewer says. It will be available on tap nationwide.

BREWER/LOCATION: Russian River Brewing Co. Santa Rosa, Calif.
BEER NAME: HopTime Harvest Ale
COMMENT: Russian River has made wet-hop beer since 1999, with distribution mostly on tap in California. This beer has a grassy taste — a common feature of fresh hops — with melon and lemon-zest flavors, says brewer Vinnie Cilurzo.

BREWER/LOCATION: Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. Chico, Calif.
BEER NAME: Harvest Ale
COMMENT: Sierra Nevada has made its harvest ale for 11 years, one of the first breweries to do so. Kegs of the beer make it to all 50 states, but it still pays to live near the brewer: Sierra has other wet-hop varieties mostly for local distribution.

BREWER/LOCATION: Victory Brewing Co. Downingtown, Pa.
BEER NAME: Harvest Pilsner
COMMENT: Most wet hop beers are ales. This is a rare harvest lager — in the Pilsner style — that uses hops grown in upstate New York and trucked to the Pennsylvania brewery just after they’re picked. Its brewer touts its “earthy, spicy” taste.

BREWER/LOCATION: Pelican Pub & Brewery Pacific City, OR
BEER NAME: Elemental Harvest Ale
COMMENT: Cool link and pics. Looks like a really interesting joint. Perhaps we shall be lucky enough to visit one day.

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~ by bojangles on September 22, 2006.

3 Responses to “It’s Official: Hops are Hot (and Wet)!”

  1. 2 brothers brewing company out of Warrenville, IL. Has Heavy Handed IPA out for Harvest 2006. That shit is the bitters. (pun) It really is quite good, as are all of their beers. I highly recommend the Dog Days Lager, and the Ebel Weiss.

    It boggles my mind I haven’t been there for a tour yet. I am such a loser.

  2. Don’t forget that you’re also a sellout. It sucks that you can’t get any beers from the Midwest out here, for the most part. I do remember that back in the day, you could get a pitcher of Three Floyd’s at Shifty’s for 7 or 8 bucks (shows just how far back it was). I’d love a little Bell’s or New Glarus or some of that 2 Brothers shit. Retailers and distributors seem to forget there is something between PA and OR. Another way beer is like politics.

  3. Yes, this is true. All of it. Even the sell out part. A lot of it has to do with the fact that a few of the Paciffic NW breweries also have either distributorships or satellite breweries in the Mid-Atlantic (Mendicino and Rogue, are two I know for sure.) This wouldn’t really make sense for a mid-west brewery.

    However, having said that, it does seem a little strange to me that a good size brewer like Great Lakes or Bell’s can’t ship a few cases east. Or maybe work out some sort of reciprocal deal with some of the Eastern brewers so that out here i might be able to get my grubby mitts on an Ithaca Nut Brown, a Ommegang or nice Middle-Ages brew every now and again.

    On the Plus sign, over the past few months I have been noticing Otter Creek making some inroads.

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