Most beer drinkers start off disliking the bitterness of the strongly hopped beers and I cannot tell you how many people, when asked what type of beer they like, respond with "nothing hoppy." The bitter flavors and aromas are definitely something of an acquired taste, much like beer itself, and eventually the palates of those drinkers shift to enjoy those characteristics.
To say that hopped up beers have grown exponentially in popularity would be a severe understatement. West coast breweries have been hopping beers so well, for so long, that they even carved out their own sub-style, the West Coast IPA. Even European brewers are taking notes and tips from the hoppy IPAs and Pale Ales produced in the states and putting their own spin on hop-forward beers.
Over the growing years of craft beer, brewers have been throwing more and more hops at styles like red ales, brown ales and even some of the darker, more malt focused brews like porters and stouts. This mindset forgoes the approach of making the beer completely balanced and tips the scales in the direction of dank and bitter. Let's be honest, some of these attempts work phenomenally well while others miss the mark slightly and disappear into the night as we applaud the effort.
Among beer drinkers, there is a line drawn between how to handle hoppy beers and the purpose behind them. Hops were initially added to beer for their preservation capabilities. The beer stays fresh longer and maintains the flavors intended for enjoyment. Although hops are still used in this way today, the other side of the coin has people wanting their hops as fresh as possible and their mindset is when drinking these beers, the sooner, the better.
One such beer category takes the fresh component to a new level, the harvest ale. Unlike regular brewing practices where beers use dried, kilned hops, these beers are brewed with wet hops that have been picked from their bine within days, or even hours, before they are tossed into the kettle. This procedure lets the hops shine in their purest form, creating a pungent aroma and flavor in the beer. The grain bills in these specific beers are usually standard Pale Ale or IPA foundations to let the hops be front and center and the star of the show.
When hops are picked, they immediately start to break down and essentially rot. They are taken from the fields and dried in kilns to preserve their oils and bitter flavoring essentials. Because of the knowledge of the quickly spoiled ingredient, wet-hop ales weren't really a thing until 1996 when Sierra Nevada decided to brew their Northern Hemisphere Harvest Ale for the first time. The recipe called for fresh Centennial and Cascade hops to be overnighted from the fields, straight to the brewery. Within 24 hours, the hops were picked and tossed into the boil, creating the first marketed wet hop IPA.
One of the things to wrap your head around when brewers make wet hopped beers is the volume of hops used in the brewing process. Because wet hops still contain water, the weight has to be taken into consideration when calculating recipes. The average ratio of wet hops to dry hops is 5:1. In 2009 when Surly Brewing decided to brew their first wet hopped beer, Surly WET, they used 1400 pounds of wet hops to do so. 2012's batch of WET used 2400 pounds and the latest release was the largest yet and used 6,000 pounds of Simcoe hops. You might have heard the Sam Adams commercials raving about their usage of 1 pound of hops per barrel brewed (31 gallons), but that is little in comparison to a 600 barrel batch of WET with 10 pounds of wet hops per barrel.
The result of this dosage of hops is a distinctly different way the simcoe hop tastes. Simcoe usually isn't very bright and has a less fruity note than other hops. Having a 2015 Surly WET fresh, the nose shows a lot of pine and more fruit than you'd get with dried hops. The profile is still a little darker and more earthy, but the richness of the hop comes through as a sticky, piney flavor with a dank bitterness. It's almost like chewing on a beer soaked hop cone. If you've had your fair share of IPAs, and really payed attention to how they tasted, you can actually tell the difference between the wet hopped crispness and a year round offering.
Two Brothers seized the opportunity to produce three recipes of their wet-hopped IPA, Heavy Handed. Each batch used a different hop and offers a look at the difference between the Centennial, Cascade and Chinook wet-hop profiles. Just like different grapes produce slight variances of flavors in wine, different hops are going to offer sublties in the beer. This is especially true depending on when the wet hops are added to the boil. The bittering hops are added first at the beginning of the boil, while the flavoring hops are added at the end. These additions could use the same hop, or a few different hop varieties can be used for each addition depending on the desired flavor of the beer.
Using the hops this fresh keeps the oils and characteristics of the flower intact. You could think about it much like cooking spices. Using something fresh from your garden will always have a crisp, fresh flavor where using a dried ingredient will still be flavorful but won't have the same impact on your dish.
Now let us not confuse wet hop beers with fresh hop beers. They are two very different things. Wet hopped beers are as stated above, fresh off the bine and undried. Fresh hops are the freshest dried hops leaving the kilns. These fresh hops are sometimes used within a week of the hop harvest as the rest are pelletized or flattened, packaged, and used by brewers throughout the year.
Wet hop beers are a hop head's dream as you can't really get any fresher as far as brewed beer goes. Wet hopped beers are growing in popularity and more and more breweries are trying their hand at it. Several local, small, and in-town breweries made their own version of a harvest ale this year and the experimentation has been fun to follow. Too bad it only happens once a year.