The modern American craft beer drinker is blessed with an almost limitless array of options when it comes to choosing a beer. In a country that was dominated for decades by the uninspiring, bland light lager, the sheer number of craft beer options available to drinkers today is astounding. But while a wide range of beers are available, one ingredient and flavor profile reigns supreme: hops. The female flower of the Humulus Lupulus plant has been used for centuries to stabilize and preserve beer, while also adding a bitter balance to the sweetness that malted grain imparts. The American development of the modern India Pale Ale in the early 1990s brought hop flavor to the forefront, and American drinkers have been clamoring for the juicy, flavor-packed beers ever since.
When brewers seek to add hoppy goodness to their beers, freshness is key. The alpha and beta acids and essential oils that hops provide are most potent when they're fresh. This has led to the rise of seasonal wet hop beers, brewed with hops that have just been harvested, have not been dried (a typical part of preparing harvested hops for brewing), and are at their peak level of freshness. These hops are typically harvested and sold to brewers around late September each year, making now the perfect time to take in one of these fantastic beers and experience the flavors that hops can impart at their absolute prime.
As previously mentioned, hops have been used in brewing for centuries, though the recent explosion in hop popularity among craft brewers is a relatively recent phenomenon. The recent surge can in part be attributed to the unique flavors that American hops provide versus their European counterparts. While English, German and Czech hops have long been prized for their refined flavor profiles, which often impart earthy, grassy, floral flavors, American hops, particularly those grown in the Pacific Northwest, tend to be more brash. Huge tropical fruit flavors such as mango, peach, orange, and pineapple flavors are often present, along with an earthy pine-forest character. American hops can also impart dank flavors reminiscent of Humulus Lupulus's close genetic cousin, Cannabis. These flavors are complex and interesting enough to be prized by craft beer aficionados, while also being welcoming enough for the craft beer novice to enjoy. This widespread appeal has made the American IPA and Pale Ale the dominant beer styles among the American craft beer community.
Cultivation and Harvest
While hops are grown all over the world, the main centers of hop production are the Hallertau region of Germany (the largest hop producing region on earth, with over a quarter of the world's hops being produced there), Kent in the United Kingdom, and the Yakima and Willamette Valley regions of Washington and Oregon, respectively. Hops are naturally climbing plants, and they are grown on strings leading up to overhead hanging trellises. At the end of the summer growing season, the hops are picked from the flowering plants and taken to production facilities to be dried and packaged for storage and shipment. While many hops are left in their natural cone state, a large percentage are processed into hop pellets, which retain the hop's natural flavor, aroma, and bittering qualities in a small, easy-to-use package.
The Wet Hop Difference
The difference between normally hopped beers and the seasonal fresh hopped varieties takes place during the time immediately following harvest. Instead of being taken to a hop house to be dried and packaged, wet hops are shipped or brewed into beers within hours of being picked off the vine. Drying hops after picking keeps them from turning brown and spoiling. Since no drying occurs with wet hop beers, they must be used immediately in order to preserve their beer enhancing qualities. For breweries in the Pacific Northwest or with fresh hops naturally at hand (Sierra Nevada brews their wet hop beers with hops from fields on their brewery grounds, for example), this is hardly a problem. For breweries without local hop supplies, huge bales of hops must be shipped overnight. For craft brewers, the expense and stress of waiting for a shipment to arrive are worth it.
The Final Product
Once the hops have arrived and the brews are produced, the difference becomes wonderfully apparent. In the hands of skilled craft brewers, wet hop beers burst with aroma and fragrance, showcasing the hops’ natural tropical and piney qualities, with an enhanced, perfume aroma and less intense bitterness. In its style guidelines on wet hop beers, the Brewers Association states that a wet hop ale should “have characters similar to the style to which it is brewed with the added nuances of green, almost chlorophyll-like character with fresh, new beers.” There are numerous examples of the style that are worth checking out, including Port Brewing High Tide, Sierra Nevada Northern Hemisphere Harvest Wet Hop Ale, and Founders Harvest Ale. Look for one of these or any of the other wet hop beers that should be popping up at your local beer shop in the next few weeks. If you're a certified hop head, these beers will offer an enhanced version of flavors you already love. If you're not, these may be the beers that convert you.