Wet Hopping: Overnight Flights, Fresh Hops, and Sean Connery. How Could This Not Be Sexy?

HopsEver heard of “wet hopped” beer?  First, yes – it is as sexy as it might sound.  But what exactly is it?  A relatively new term to brewing, and at first, one that seems like it could be a bit contradictory.  A bit like saying, would you like one of those new ‘dry’ beers?  The definition lies in when and how hops are added to the beer being produced.  Here in the United States, hops are generally harvested somewhere between August and September.  After harvesting, hops are generally dried, and in most cases, turned into pellets for use throughout the rest of the year.  Both the drying and the pelletizing extends the shelf life of the hops, makes them easier to transport, and concentrates the oils within the hops, making it easier to get more flavor out of them.  But it is becoming more and more commonplace for some breweries to produce a beer each harvest season by using freshly picked hops without drying them, and immediately putting the fresh, and therefore called “wet” (as in not dry) hops directly into the beer being produced.  Some breweries which do not have their own hop fields will even fly fresh hops overnight, directly from growing regions in the country to the brewery, to use them the next day.  Exciting stuff, right?

But apart from being exciting, and in my opinion, yes, sexy, that a brewery is willing to ship ingredients overnight from a hop growing region half way across the country to their location, to immediately use them in a beer, what are the possible flavors or differences?  It lies, of course, in the fact the hops aren’t dried first.  The same can be said for spices that you might use in a dish.  Ever been planning a fabulous dinner, read your recipe, which called for a couple of different spices, and wondered if you should use fresh or dried?  If you cook much, you probably know the difference.  As with hops, dried spices basically pack more of a punch – due to the drying, they are a good bit more concentrated.  Fresh spices, on the other hand, are less intense pound for pound, but can exhibit a slightly different flavor.  Due to the difference in intensity, of course, less is needed with dried spices for your lasagna, or hops in a brewer’s beer.  Both have their advantages.  It’s not necessarily “better” one way or another; each has a slightly different set of flavor characteristics, and with hops, it gives the brewer a different kind of “palette” to work from, of sorts, when creating a beer.

Specifically, wet hopped beers are often said to have a “grassy” flavor, but this only scratches the surface.  The key is that using the hops as close to the time they’re picked as possible is simply another way for creative brewers to explore the possibilities of one of beer’s vital and most misunderstood ingredients:  the hops themselves.  Now, this is the part of the story, that if you’re truly beer curious, not to take lightly.  That’s because craft brewers are constantly proving that hops have much greater potential than simply to be beer’s famous bittering agent, and to balance out a beer’s malty sweetness.  To take hops that lightly is an unfair overstatement of all they’re capable of, and results in one of beer’s biggest myths.  You know the one.   If you need a refresher, offer your friend who doesn’t ever drink anything other than mainstream, light colored, megabrewery beer something slightly different, and tell them it may have even the slightest hop character.  Now stand back and repeat after your friend: “I don’t care for hoppy beers, they’re just too bitter”.  The real truth is that there is a library of flavor possibilities which hops impart to beer, including those tasting of citrus, pine, herbal, earthy, peppery spice, and more, and individual hop varieties have further flavor differences.  Wet hopping is yet another way for brewers to put hops to use, and extract an even different flavor profile for their beer.  Again, don’t think necessarily better, just think different, as if with these beers, brewers develop a slightly different shade of a color you already know.

So with harvest season coming to a close, this year’s wet hopped beers are now making it into stores.  If your curiosity is up for finding them, and I highly recommend you should for the experience of tasting one, remember, it’s a small window of opportunity.  The overall number of these beers, and the volume with which each one is produced is simply not very high.  An easy way to find these beers is sometimes to look for the term “Harvest” in the name or on the label, as in Sierra Nevada’s Northern Hemisphere Harvest Ale.  Personally, I tasted my first of the year a couple weeks ago – Terrapin Brewery’s (GA) “So Fresh, So Green, Green” ale.  The most eye opening aspect of the beer was its myth-busting power – it has bunches of hop flavor, but the bitterness was quite low, and what was featured first and foremost was simply the various clean, fresh tastes that hops can provide a beer.  The beer revolved calmly around swirling tastes of fresh grassiness or leafiness, slight grapefruit like citrus, and even slighter pine, before coming back to a clean and quick finish.  The beer also had a nice, unobtrusive malt sweetness that ran well underneath all else, and all in all, it simply was one clean, fresh tasting beer.  I remember tasting it on a beautiful, calm, sunny, early fall day, and it seemed to match the weather perfectly.

So, considering that Terrapin shipped fresh hops from Washington state overnight so I could enjoy this beer on such a sweet, gorgeous day, not only did I end up enjoying a darn good example of a wet hopped beer, but all in all, it was an experience that you have to admit sounds just a bit, well, sexy….right?  Sure, maybe not in a Sean Connery or Julia Roberts sort of way, no.  And chances are, wet hopped beers will not be the featured item in a mass advertising campaign, showing up in the hands of swimsuit models anytime soon, but they don’t need to be.  They’re just good – a bit exciting – and in a way, celebrates hop harvest season as one of beer’s most vital ingredients.  Perhaps when a good beer pairs so well with a perfect day, that’s close enough to being sexy as it needs to be.





~ by thebeerroad on November 2, 2010.

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