The year was 1996. Two friends were chatting over lunch when the conversation landed on the subject of hops. Not an unusual turn of events for the pair—an English hops expert and a California craft brewer. The brewmaster in this case was Steve Dresler, head brewer for Sierra Nevada Brewing Company. And it was at that table, over mid-afternoon nibbles, that an entire variety of beer was born.
“What if you used fresh hops instead of dried hops [to make a beer]?” asked the hops expert, Gerard Lemmens.
“What does that even mean?” countered Dresler, mind sufficiently blown.
What Lemmens meant was this: Instead of harvesting hops and immediately drying them out for year-round use, why not skip the drying process and use the wet, fresh hops in a brew?
Hops are, of course, the primary flavor agent in many beers. Bitterness, tang, citrus notes—all the work of the wonderful little flowers known as hops. Ninety-nine percent of the time, hops are put in a kiln right after harvest, a process that dries the hop flowers out and preserves them for later. Hops go bad pretty quickly; they start to turn after about 24 hours. So the drying process preserves—and concentrates—the delicious flavors for practical purposes.
But Sierra Nevada’s Steve Dresler decided to experiment with the idea of fresh hops (also known as wet or green hops) way back in the mid-nineties. If he could get the fresh hops into a brew within 24 hours, he thought, he might be able to achieve flavors never before tasted in an American craft beer. A pale ale with fresh-cut grass notes, more delicate and subtle than the traditional IPA.
And so Sierra Nevada Northern Hemisphere Wet Hop IPA was born. The beer was the first of its kind in modern times, a beer created with fresh hops instead of dry.
Fast forward to 2014, fresh hop beers are the seasonal pick for hop heads across the country.
“You can only make wet-hopped beer once a year. It’s a true seasonal beer,” says Colby Chandler, executive director of brewing for Ballast Point Brewing & Spirits. The hop harvest is a late-September-to-early-October event, and brewers have to act fast to create their fresh-hopped offerings. If they don’t get the hops in the mix within 24 hours, the opportunity is lost.
Lucky for us, the hops in Ballast Point’s Schooner Wet Hop did make the deadline this year. They came off the vine just hours before they were alchemically transformed into the fresh, grassy, delicate ale. It’s now available for a limited time at better beer bars around Southern California (not available in bottles). And Schooner also offers a unique opportunity to compare: Ballast Point also makes a dry hop version of the same beer. Who doesn’t love a blind beer taste test?
So if you’re not big on the pumpkin spice craze or could do without an Oktoberfest, give fresh hop beer a go. But do it soon—this seasonal treat is best consumed as close to the bottling (or kegged) date as possible.