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?
Different expressions of flavor
Some flavors and aromas are expressed differently or are unique to wet hops–depending on type, this could mean a brighter flavor, an earthier flavor, or a more green, dank and herbal flavor. It’s a great chance to experience the full range of potential that hops offer. And don’t forget, this is the very first time anyone is able to use and taste the year’s new crops. While growers strive to maintain a similar end product year after year, hops are of course an agricultural product. Which means they are naturally susceptible to sometimes drastic flavor differences depending on seasons, weather, water availability, etc.
Probably the best and most interesting part of the fresh hop season is the chance for brewers to leave their cave-like facilities and embrace the work of the hop farmer. Hop harvesting season is a fast-paced, sometimes frenzied event that employs hundreds or thousands of workers to help pick, process, kiln, bale and package hops 24 hours a day until the crop is complete. Brewers and owners frequently take a trip to sample and discuss the year’s offerings and are able to witness and appreciate the reality of the harvest. This can only help facilitate good connections within the industry, putting the spotlight on the greater craft beverage community, all the different things that go into the delicious beverage you enjoy. I imagine it must be very satisfying for the farmers and processors to see (and drink) the culmination of the year’s effort.
Freshness and on-site drinking
Fresh hop beers are particularly poor for storing, so you’re almost always more likely to see them on tap at a brewery or nearby pub. When you see them in bottles or cans, do consider the age–most beers have a fair shelf-life of about 90 days before flavors start to subside drastically and staleness sets in. And anything with a lot of hop matter should be consumed as fresh as possible. This necessity of freshness means you’ve got to get out and say hello to local breweries in person! Which means that you also are getting a better connection to growers, seasonality, and the industry as a whole.
Hoping for fresh hop beer recommendations? Well, as I mentioned, each year is somewhat different, and breweries often choose to highlight different hops as the season goes on. If you live anywhere with a large beer community near a growing region, you won’t have any trouble finding one or two wet hop ales to try. Around here we eagerly await Fremont Brewing’s Cowiche Canyon Fresh Hop Ale, which uses organic hops from Cowiche Canyon to make a smaller-batch ale celebrating a particular farm in the region. Schooner EXACT Brewing Co. hosts an annual trip to Virgil Gamache farms for a group of enthusiastic drinkers who get to brew a beer right on the farm. Hale’s Ales in Seattle hosts a fresh hop beer festival, featuring fresh hop beers from 20 different breweries. You have so many ways but not a lot of time to sample the season, so you’d best get started soon!