In addition to being a fine excuse to drink German lager, in the beer world, October is hophead Christmas. Every year more and more breweries produce "wet hopped" beers using hops that have not been dried in a kiln to preserve them. (You'll also hear the terms "fresh hopped" and "harvest," which—with the exception of some semantic beer geek controversy—are generally considered synonymous.) When tasted fresh, these beers pack an extra-special hop punch and are coveted by many.
Getting unkilned hops into beer and to you presents problems beyond the already detail-oriented pursuits of hop farming and beer brewing. For one, you need a whole lot of hops: up to five times the weight you would use if incorporating dried hop flowers or pellets. That's part of why wet hop beers can get a little pricy, and are often brewed in very small quantities.
Also, hops can be as unpredictable as any crop, and brewers need to have a flexible schedule to use hops in their just-picked state. When the crop is ready, harvesting is a labor-intensive process—one brewery told me it took 30 volunteers five hours to pick enough hops for 40 barrels of beer.
Once picked, wet hops must be used as soon as possible—their quality and flavor drops off quickly and they are more prone to spoilage than dried hops. That often means a mad dash to the hop field for brewers within striking distance, or overnighting hop shipments from farm to brewery for breweries further from the bines.
Depending on the hop field being plundered and the year you're looking, you'll see the first Northern Hemisphere wet-hopped beers pop up in late summer and the bulk of the bunch in late September through October. This year's harvest was late, so 2012's wet hop season is just now kicking into full gear. But if you see a wet-hopped beer on the shelf or on draft in February, back away slowly.
All hop-forward beer is best tasting when fresh, but wet-hop beers are even more so: the flavor, like that of fresh basil or other herbs, is delicate and fades quickly. These beers are rarely bottled—the best way to enjoy wet hop beer is to go to the brewery taprooms or a fresh hop festival now.
If you don't have plane tickets, though, here are five bottled examples worth trying right this minute.
Deschutes Chasin' Freshies Bad news first: Deschutes isn't making its tasty Fresh Hop Mirror Pond this year. Good news: instead we've got the new Chasin' Freshies Fresh Hop IPA. This is one of the more alcoholic wet hop beers of the season so far at 7.4% and also one of the most complex. Name a hop descriptor—herbal, earthy, grapefruit, pine—and you'll probably be able to pick some up here. One of our tasters kept swearing he tasted lemongrass.
Rogue Chatoe Rogue Wet Hop Ale The folks at Rogue are serious enough about fresh hops that they maintains their own hopyard 77 miles from its Newport, Oregon brewery, where they grows their own hops dubbed "Freedom" for projects like this one. You can tell from the first sniff that Rogue isn't messing around. A clean hop bitterness dominates this one, starting with an immediate sucker punch up front and lasting through a long lingering finish. And you thought Brutal IPA was brutal!
Sierra Nevada Estate Maybe it's easier to list the commercial beer trends we can't give Sierra Nevada credit for pioneering. It jump-started the commercial wet hopped beer movement back in 1996 with its Harvest Ale. Since then the brewery has raised its game even higher by cultivating hop fields at its Chico brewery. This is a relatively balanced beer, with a less assertive hop bite and more evident malt flavors than some wet hop beers. Its citrusy finish will keep fans of "C hops" coming back for one more sip. But don't trust me: it just won gold in the Fresh Hop Ale category at the Great American Beer Festival.
Two Beers Fresh Hop Ale Like Rogue, Two Beers takes a road trip the day its hops are ready—the brewery is just a few hours away from the Yakima Valley, ground zero for domestic hop growing. The fresh Centennial combined with dried local hops created a vibrant, grapefruit-tinged hop salad. Think Apollo, Cascade, Columbus, Super Galena, and Warrior hops. Some are heavily citrusy, some are high alpha acid (ie, resiny and bitter), some are both. Three sips into this and I was ready to move to Washington.
Sixpoint Autumnation Wet hopped pumpkin beer in a can? Yes. Most pumpkin beers taste like pie spices, but bitter and citrus-flavored hops are the star of the show this time. The gourd flavors are waving to us in the background and some ginger notes emerge as the beer warms up. Sixpoint keeps things lively by changing this beer's yeast strain every year, and this year the brewery also asked fans to vote online to determine the wet hop. The winner was the ever-popular Citra. Hooray for democracy!