According to the Beer Judge Certification Program, German Oktoberfest-style beer has "no hop aroma." Ironically, in the U.S. a new sort of unofficial October celebration is beginning to emerge around a completely different—indeed opposite—style of beer: It's called "wet hop."
You need to know something about hops to understand this beer: Hops are the seed cones of the plant species Humulus lupulus, and they're actually very delicate flowers. They don't survive long after being cut, which is why almost all hops are dried immediately after harvest, to preserve the valuable oils and resins that add so much savor and tang to beer. Most hops used by brewers are in this dried or pellet form.
There was, however, an obscure European tradition of brewing a special seasonal beer with just-harvested green, a.k.a. "wet," hops. In 1996, the brewmaster of Sierra Nevada, Steve Dresler, learned of this technique from a hop farmer and decided to give it a try. The beer, now called Northern Hemisphere Harvest Ale, has been made every year since. And other breweries have followed.
Part of a wet hop beer's beauty is the challenge of making it. "Hops are really fragile, and they start to compost almost instantly," explains Sierra Nevada's spokesman, Bill Manley, "which is why they're usually dried immediately." Sierra ships fresh hops from the Yakima Valley in Washington state (where about 75 percent of American hops are grown) to its brewery in Chico, California, in plastic crates carried in refrigerated trucks, which depart right from the hop fields. The hop growers call Sierra's team from the road to let them know when to start their boil, "and [the hops] usually show up at 3 a.m. on Labor Day weekend," says Manley.
Sierra (which also makes a wet-hopped ale with hops grown on the brewery's own property, the Estate Homegrown Ale) is not alone in its efforts. Tough as it is to get clean, untainted hops to nearby California in under 24 hours, breweries all over the U.S. are now producing wet hop beer, shipping said hops to points near and far. To wit, Sixpoint in Brooklyn (whose Belgian Rye is one of my favorite American beers) overnighted 800 pounds of fresh hops for their fall beer, Autumnation. In Minnesota, Surly Brewing makes a beer called Wet. Deschutes Brewery in Oregon makes a wet-hopped version of their popular Mirror Pond pale ale. And there are dozens more.
Why go to all this trouble? First and foremost: the flavor. Wet hops have a different taste than kiln-dried hops. The base notes are similar—floral, bitter, spicy, tangy—but there's less full-throttle intensity, and the fresh hops add a vibrancy, a fineness, a definition, and a chlorophyll-driven energy that you don't get in standard-hopped beers.
Another reason brewers have taken to this style is simply the celebration of change. "In the new craft brewing," Sierra Nevada's Manley says, "brewers are really interested in short-lived, fresh flavors, terroir, and being in tune with the seasons."
Morgan Herzog, proprietor of the excellent Seattle shop The Beer Junction, agrees. "There's only one moment you can make this kind of beer. Even in the dynamic world of brewing you don't have many situations where you capture fleeting flavors," he says. "I think that's why you're seeing it become so popular, with so many breweries jumping on the bandwagon. It really has the makings of a new American tradition."
Fleeting indeed. Even though most hops are harvested in September, it still takes a few weeks to brew the beers and release them. And these beers don't last long either. They're meant to be drunk within weeks of being released, which puts their season squarely in ... October. To me, this suggests why the celebration of wet-hopped ales should perhaps become America's Oktoberfest, a ritual that, unlike Germany's, really is dependent on the season.