We live at a time when most foods are available most of the time. Want to brew a pumpkin beer? Look in your cupboard and think back to last Thanksgiving. You’ll probably uncover purée that had been sentenced to another year in the can.
But year-round availability of once-seasonal products is a new phenomenon. Canned goods as we know them didn’t exist until after the American Civil War, when the invention of double-seam canning made sanitary seals a reality. It would take a few more decades before mechanical refrigeration (developed, in part, to meet the demands of brewers) would widely deploy itself in households.
So for most of human history, our customs, our rituals, even our bacchanals, have been ruled by the perpetual but predictable cosmic waltz of earth and sun.
The same is true for the beer we drink. Lager brewing, once impossible—even prohibited—in summer, is now a year-round operation for breweries worldwide. And the very climate control that enables on-demand cold fermentation also preserves hops, malt, and yeast, empowering brewers to bring forth beer of any kind at any time. Today, seasonality is guided more by our nostalgic notions than by agricultural constraints. Almost.
Hops, the bitter, aromatic cones of Humulus lupulus that are so critical to modern beer, grow only from late spring to late summer. Accordingly, the hops harvest comes but once a year, starting in August and winding down by the end of September in the Northern Hemisphere (mid-February through early April in the Southern Hemisphere). And while the vast majority of the haul is destined for drying in oast houses for year-round use, a select few end up in brewers’ kettles within a day of having been picked.
These freshly harvested hops take us right back to the days of Use-It-Or-Lose-It. Every autumn, brewers rush to give us a wide range of wet-hopped ales and lagers, beers that beg to be enjoyed in the moment.
In a world of always available, wet-hopped beer may very well be the last seasonal.
A Serious Seasonal
Left Hand Brewing Company in Longmont, Colorado, is well known for its wildly successful Milk Stout Nitro. Having solved the challenge of cramming innumerable tiny nitrogen bubbles into a 12-ounce glass bottle, sans widget, Left Hand has become synonymous with creamy nitro pours and smooth malty silk. But that hasn’t stopped its once-a-year Warrior IPA from tickling tongues and turning heads.
With an original gravity of 1.066 (16.2°P) and an alcohol by volume (ABV) of 7.3 percent, Warrior IPA’s base of pale, Munich, and caramel malts delivers a sturdy framework upon which to hang wet, locally grown Cascade hops.
Joe Schiraldi, vice president of brewing operations at Left Hand Brewing, used to overnight wet hops from Yakima, Washington, but the freight fees for hundreds of pounds of hops more than quintupled the cost of the hops themselves. Now he sources a more local product. Every year, usually in the last week of August, Schiraldi drives over the Continental Divide to help harvest and haul back truckloads of fresh Cascades from farms near Paonia, a high, dry, sunny town on Colorado’s Western Slope.
More recently, a couple of locals who frequent Left Hand’s taproom have taken the whole freshness thing a step further. The two experienced pilots volunteer their time and their aircraft to mount a precision touch-and-go hops recovery operation. Schiraldi’s Cascades go from bine to kettle in just a few hours’ time.
In Left Hand’s brew house, fresh Colorado Cascades are used both in the kettle and in the hopback. But because wet hops occupy so much more volume than their dried counterparts, Schiraldi actually runs finished wort from the kettle back through the lauter tun—which he crams full of hops—on its way to the fermentor. Tying up the lauter tun in this way means waiting eight hours between batches, but for Left Hand and its legions of thirsty hopheads, the minor blip in production is worth it.
For Schiraldi, it all comes back to freshness. “Anything you can smell is no longer in the hops cone,” he reminds me. “You have to get [the hops] in the kettle as soon as possible.”
A Sticky Seasonal
Eighty miles west and three thousand feet up, Vail, Colorado, is internationally famous for world-class skiing, pricey real estate, and celebrity sightings. A short drive from the ski slopes, in the small town of Edwards, Crazy Mountain Brewery turns out crafty concoctions with such memorable names as Horseshoes & Hand Grenades American ESB, Hookiebobb IPA, and Lawyers, Guns & Money Barleywine.
CEO and Brewmaster Kevin Selvy left a career in finance to get his feet wet and his fingers sticky in craft brewing. Following several California gigs, including a stint at Anchor Brewing Company, Selvy opened Crazy Mountain in 2010. His reverence for hops shines through in Crazy Mountain’s Sticky Fingers Wet Hopped Ale, the name of which is a nod to the sticky residue that clings to one’s hands after a day of picking hops (it also happens to be a Rolling Stones album). Check out a homebrew-scaled recipe here.
Like Left Hand’s Schiraldi, Selvy relies on wet hops for late kettle additions. His close proximity to Western Slope hops farms means that many of the fresh Cascades and Chinooks that find their way into Crazy Mountain’s kettle have been off the bine less than two hours. “It’s so much fun to work with wet hops,” he says, “but you only get to do so a couple of days each year.”
Selvy brews Sticky Fingers for many reasons, but he especially enjoys the intimate connection it offers to the raw ingredients. “Production brewing means making lots of the same thing over and over,” he observes. “Wet-hopped beer, however, removes routine from the equation because you’re constantly monitoring lab results, weather, and the condition of the plants to know just when to harvest them. And you have to be ready for them when they come off the bines.”
But Selvy wouldn’t have it any other way. “You really get to explore the terroir of where the hops are grown,” he notes. “Working with wet hops means getting to know the plant at a fundamental level.”
A Super Seasonal
Superpowers usually develop over a period of time, quietly amassing wealth, steadily developing infrastructure, and gradually increasing in profile and influence with measured strides. A few, however, are forged in the immediacy of revolution, an overnight sea change thrust upon the global stage. Comrade Brewing Company, situated between the arbitrary political borders of Denver’s Indian Creek, Goldsmith, and Hampden neighborhoods, is one such example.
Behind the communist-themed façade, Founder David Lin (The Chairman) and Brewmaster Marks Lantham (The Supreme Commander) produce what many are calling the best IPA in Colorado. Superpower IPA features a triumvirate of the world’s most wanted Pacific Northwest hops: Citra, Amarillo, and Simcoe. But it is Superpower’s wet-hopped comrade that energized the proletariat at 2014’s Great American Beer Festival (GABF), so much so that judges awarded it silver in the Fresh or Wet Hop Ale category. The brewery had been open fewer than six months when Lin and Lanham took home the medal.
“I started looking for hops in 2012, knowing that we’d need the right contracts in place to keep up with demand,” says Lin. But while Superpower’s base model relies on a suite of proprietary hops that bear trademarked names, it was stalwart standbys Cascade and Chinook that carried Fresh Hop Superpower past the kiss-and-cry area at GABF. For Lin, freshness, not variety, is mission critical when working with wet hops.
“You only get to make wet-hopped beer once a year, so make the most of it,” he advises brewers. “Don’t avoid using wet hops just because you can’t get your hands on a certain type. Freshness comes first. Variety is an afterthought.”
The Last Seasonal
Imperial everything is giving way to the subtleties of session, and glass longnecks are yielding ever more shelf space to aluminum cans. But fresh-hopped beers appear to be here to stay, and it is clear that freshness comes first, that the hops need to speak for themselves.
The same unprocessed approach that lets the fresh-hops character shine through in the glass also guarantees that the experience will be a fleeting pleasure. Fresh hops remind us that there is virtue in reserving some things for special occasions.
PHOTO COURTESY LEFT HAND BREWING COMPANY