As the leaves begin to fall, the season of harvest celebrations is upon us. Beer is a year-round drink, but some of its ingredients are just as much a part of a seasonal cycle as pumpkins and gourds. Late September and early October are when the beers brewed with the freshest available hops – sometimes added to beer within hours of being picked – are ready to taste.
Hops are the bittering agent in beer and are the flowers of a plant that grows in tall bines, harvested from August to September, depending on region and conditions. At commercial hop farms in Washington, Oregon and throughout the Pacific Northwest, most of the hops that are harvested go into a “pelletized” form, dried in a kiln and compressed into hamster-feed looking pellets. This process both concentrates the hoppy flavors and increases their shelf life for brewing year-round. But when you want to take the most advantage of the hops at their freshest, only fresh or wet hops will do.
A fresh hop is one that has recently been harvested, and it is used in the season in which it has been harvested. “Wet” hops are those that have been used before they’ve undergone any drying. While these terms are used by some interchangeably, they both indicate that the hops went from the hop yards to the brew kettle without a lot of time passing in between. After a few weeks of fermentation, these beers are the freshest you can get.
As the hop farms in Maine started up, they had limited amounts of hops to go around, making fresh-hopped beers rare and usually only available as small pilot batches in a tasting room. This year, several Maine breweries have stepped up their use of local hops and produced larger batches that are making it to packaging. There are now hop farms in southern and northern Maine, which each year supply more hops than in the previous one. Combined with the increase in both malt growing and processing, that’s made 100 percent local harvest beers possible.
Take Bunker Brewing Co.’s Green Mind, for example. This year’s release includes Cascade and Nugget hops that were grown by the Hop Yard in Gorham, just a few miles away from Bunker’s brewery. The wet-hopped pale ale is a hazy yellow color, and the aromas trend towards the juicy. I was surprised (after the aroma) to find that it had a strong malt backbone. The malts are also completely local, with contributions from Buck’s Farm and Maine Grains. What’s interesting about this beer is that the hops aren’t necessarily center stage in it, but the overall beer is one that I would pick up and enjoy any day of the year (if only it were available). I’ve had trouble liking wet-hop beers before because their flavors can tend to be muddled if not handled properly. In this case, I like that Green Mind is a well-balanced pale ale, but perhaps the spotlight could have shone a little brighter on the hops themselves.
Rising Tide Brewing Co. has released Maine Harvest, a wet-hop ale, in cans this year. Its ingredients are completely local, including hops from the Hop Yard, as well as 100 percent Maine-grown grains from Blue Ox Malthouse, Maine Grains and Buck Farms. It pours a beautiful pale color that you can see straight through (rare in the times of the haze craze), and the puffy head on the beer stays for quite a while, locking in those hoppy aromas throughout the whole drink. The mouthfeel is quite light, but that allows the delicate flavors of the hops to take center stage. Maine Harvest is not a hop bomb by any stretch, but in a way, it probably shouldn’t try to be one. Instead, these hops are employed with a subtle hand and the result is piney but clean, spiced but even, and bitter but not assaulting. In terms of directness and character of flavor, this one rises to the top of my list. At 5.5 percent alcohol, it means I can enjoy a few in a row to get the most of them in the brief time in which they are available.
These brewers are far from alone in releasing beers with fresh, wet hops and local ingredients. Tributary Brewing Co. brewed Hop Harvest, which was canned in limited quantities and is available at the brewery and some beer stores close to Kittery. At Sebago Brewing Co.’s new brewery and restaurant in Gorham, there are a pair of pilot beers on tap that feature fresh hops, including a tasty kettle-soured beer named On The Grind that is likably tart. Dirigo Brewing Co. canned a small batch of Maine Pilsner, a crisp lager with all Maine ingredients.
This time of year is the season for reaping the fruits – or rather, the flowers – of hop growers’ labors. Be on the lookout for more fresh and wet hop beers, as they will come and go as quickly as the autumn leaves.
Carla Jean Lauter is a freelance beer writer and blogger who lives in Lisbon. Follow her beer adventures at: