It’s here again–the harvest season. Specifically, it’s hop harvest time, which runs from August through October depending on varietal, growing location and weather. Living here in the lovely state of Washington, we have a fantastic amount of hop products easily available–we are, after all, the producers of 77% of the country’s hops. But what especially excites brewers and drinkers about this proximity this time of year is the availability of fresh or wet hops. As you know, brewers use a number of hop products–dried whole-leaf hops, dried pelletized hops, hop oils and hop extracts. Hops do not store well fresh, so all these products are preserved versions that will be available for months after harvest provided proper handling and storage. The window for utilizing fresh hops just picked is extremely short–and in fact, breweries farther from the hop fields frequently will overnight a shipment directly to the brewery. Seattle is only a few hours’ drive from the Yakima Valley growing area, so brewers will merely drive and pick up a load, usually brewing with the hops as soon as they arrive on site, whatever time of day or night.
So what’s the fuss about wet hops, if most of the beer we consume doesn’t ever involve them?
There are many ways to broadly categorize hops: genetics, typical uses, prominent flavors, regional availability and history to name just a few. It’s an exciting time to be a beer enthusiast as contemporary hop breeding and development programs are thriving. While we here in the US happily welcome newer trademarked hops like Amarillo® and Simcoe® into the canon I think it’s a great time to throw a look back to the original gangster hop group, noble hops: Hallertauer, Tettnanger, Saaz and Spalt.
Cluster hops are one of the oldest varieties grown and used commercially in the US. Originally bred from a European hop brought by early settlers and a native North American hop, Cluster has mostly fallen out of favor in the brewing industry, partially due to the increased demand for high-alpha types typically used for bittering IPAs and other hop-forward bitter ales. Until the late 1970s however, most of the hop acreage in the US was dedicated to growing Cluster, initially in New York state, and eventually in dry central Washington state. Cluster is fairly resistant to disease, but is susceptible to mildew and does not produce in as high of volume as many hops currently selected for market.