Who would have thought that last weekend we were wearing shorts while enjoying soccer games and raking leaves in bare feet? That’s how I spent my weekend anyway, and it was great weather to start thinking about fresh hop ales. Most communities have some sort of harvest ritual, and the beer community celebrates with beers brewed with freshly picked or “wet” hops.
Like most crops, hops are harvested annually. The majority of hops used for brewing are dried and/or pelletized for use throughout the year. However, during the fall, many hop farmers send part of their harvests directly to select breweries for immediate use. Since hop cones or flowers are very fragile, they need to be transported carefully and used quickly in order to yield the freshest flavors.
Most hops for fresh use go from field to brew kettle in less than 24 hours. Last year Hop Head Farms (Plainwell, Mich.) shipped 1,200 pounds of fresh hops (800 pounds of Cascade hops and 400 pounds of Centennial hops) to Surly Brewing Co. in Brooklyn Center, Minn. The hops arrived less than 15 hours after being harvested, and the brewery immediately began brewing its fresh hop IPA, Wet (7.5 percent ABV), one of my absolute favorite beers of this style.
So why use wet hops instead of dry hops? If you have ever stuck your head in a bucket of freshly harvested hops and enjoyed the aromas as I have, you would surely understand. All of the flavors that us hop heads love in hop-forward beers are much more intense — floral, earthiness, bitter, spicy, citrus, tropical fruit and so forth. Think of a freshly picked tomato in mid-August compared to a canned tomato in the middle of February. Both are good, but one is better. The freshly picked wet hops are dripping with lupulin, the sticky powdery yellow substance that contains most of the essential aromatic oils from the hop plant. It is these resins that add complexity and depth to the flavor of fresh hopped beers.
There is a story about Bell’s Harvest Ale from the early 1990s. I was told that Larry Bell knew of a secret growth of wild hops. Each year, he would cut the vines himself, drag them to the brewery and use them for its Harvest Ale (6.5 percent ABV). At that time, this small-batch release was bottled in 12-ounce bottles. Now, however, even though hops are much more readily available from Michigan hop farms, it is mostly available on draft. (In the recent past, some have been released at the brewery in 750-milliliter bottles.) In fact, it is currently on tap at the brewery, and I enjoyed one last week.
I grow Cascade hops, and this year I split my harvest between a couple of local brewers. One home brewer is using my hops fresh, while I dried the rest for use at a later time by another brewer. In the past, my hops have been used by Paw Paw Brewing, Thomas Steiglitz Brewing, for my Hop Notes anniversary maple brown ale brewed with Chip Lewis at Iechyd Da Brewing and other home brewing projects.
The first fresh hop beer of the season for me was Left Hand Warrior IPA (7.3 percent ABV, IBUs 60) which was on tap at the Constant Spring during its Left Hand Brewery tap takeover. This beer is brewed using whole flower Cascade hops from Colorado. The citrus and pine flavors almost jumped out of the glass.
My favorite fresh hop IPA this season so far is Fat Head’s Brewery’s Hop Stalker (7 percent ABV, IBUs 80). The aroma of this beer is amazing, with such intense floral and citrus notes, and the flavor followed right behind. This year is the first time that this has been released in cans; previously, it has only been available on draft. The name comes from a trip that co-owner and brewer Matt Cole made to Washington with another Fat Head’s brewer, www.ohio.com reported.
“We were out in a really late harvest in Yakima one year, and we were driving around and chasing around some of the hop trucks to follow them back to the farms,” Cole told www.ohio.com. “I looked at him and said, ‘We’re a couple of hop stalkers here.’ That’s what I do. I go out and stalk the freshest hops we can get. Not all hops are created equal. Not all growers are created equal. Not all fields are created equal.” Michiana does currently get some distribution of Fat Head’s beer, but sadly, Hop Stalker has only been released in Ohio.
Many fresh hop beers will only be small batch draft only. However, here are a few that you can find in Michiana for purchase at bottle shops.
• Founders Harvest Ale (7.6 percent ABV, IBUs 70). This is another favorite and is around in only small quantities. If you find it, pick it up fast. It is quite possible that this beer might be on tap at one or two places around Michiana as well.
• Three Floyds Broo Doo (7 percent ABV, IBUs 80) This beer usually hangs around and is more plentiful than others. It is quite possible to find this around in draft as well.
• Two Brothers Heavy Handed (6.7 percent ABV, IBUs 65)
Others that I hope we may see in our area include New Belgium Fresh Hop IPA, Left Hand Warrior IPA (in bottles) and Victory Brewing Harvest Ale (6.5 percent ABV).
Fresh hop beers are only available for a short time, and the wonderful hoppy flavors in the bottles fade fast. So don’t let these sit on the shelves. Enjoy them now.