While September is usually synonymous with trips to apple orchards and pumpkin patches, this month also signals harvest time for hops, the cone-shaped flowers that impart bitterness and aromatics to beer.
Typically, the moist, sticky hops travel directly from a bine to a kiln, where the hops are dried and either pelletized or packaged in bales for later usage. That’s because the fragrant cones are akin to recently cut grass, which rapidly goes from fragrant to rotten. Still, not every hop has a date with an oven.
Within the 24-hour freshness window, some newly harvested hops are rushed to breweries, where they help create fall’s fleeting brew delicacy: fresh-hopped beer (it’s also referred to as wet-hopped beer, which is basically an interchangeable term). Done right, “you get that lovely, green hop character that’s very delicate,” says Jamie Emmerson, executive brewmaster at Hood River, Ore.’s Full Sail Brewing, which crafts the draft-only Lupulin Fresh Hop Ale and Hopfenfrisch Fresh Hop Lager.
The seasonal style’s inception can be traced to Sierra Nevada Brewing Company. Nearly 15 years ago, the California brewery kicked off the fresh-hop movement with its Harvest Ale, dosed with Washington State’s fresh Cascade and Centennial hops. However, breweries such as Oregon’s Deschutes, Rogue, and Ninkasi have helped popularize fresh-hop ales so much so that “it’s becoming something of a Pacific Northwest style,” Emmerson says.
That’s partly due to breweries’ headquarters near the farms of Oregon and eastern Washington’s Yakima Valley, where the majority of America’s hops are grown. During harvest, which can start at the end of August, it’s no hassle to send a brewer to nab sacks of hops. Still, this style isn’t region-specific. In Easton, Penn., Weyerbacher Brewing Company makes its Harvest Ale with Cascade hops culled from brewery president Dan Weirback’s farm, while Great Divide contracts truck drivers to bring hops directly from a Washington farm to Denver.
This may seem like a hassle, but fresh-hop beers are the ephemeral embodiment of the season, a gateway from summer to fall. “They’re like Beaujolais nouveau — enjoy the drinking season, and when it’s gone, it’s gone,” Emmerson says of the ales, which are best consumed fresh. “The magic in these beers is that they’re so fleeting.”