Learning About Beer: Wet Hopped Beers

Sticking with the fall beer theme from the past two weeks I want to educate folks on wet hopped beers. Pumpkin beers dominate Fall with Oktoberfest beers coming in a distant second and wet hopped beers a bit of a rarity.

whole leaf wet hopped
Hops are the source of IBUs in beer

Before we begin I have a quick word on words wet hops, fresh hops, and whole leaf hops all mean the same thing. I will do my best to stick to wet hops, but will use whole leaf hops and fresh hops on occasion, especially when quoting others.

Wet Hopped?

First off, what does “wet hopped” even mean? Hops are an agricultural product harvested in late summer and without proper packaging their usefulness fades within a few days. Proper packaging means drying them out, pelletizing them, packaging them in oxygen free bags, and keeping those bags cold. This really doesn’t damage the hops, 99.9% of beers are made with hops packaged this way.

pellet hops
Pelletized hops, thanks to Brettanomyces on Flickr

Wet hopped beers are not packaged this way, they’re not packaged at all. Wet hopped means that the hops are cut down, rushed to a brewery, and thrown in a batch of beer as fast as possible. Matt Rowe from MadTree said that they worked closely with the growers and set MadTree’s brewing schedule so that the hops were harvested on Sunday and in a beer on Tuesday.

The limited shelf life means that the beers are strongly tied to the growing season. You can’t do a wet hop beer in July or December. Sierra Nevada manages one in the spring, flying wet hops in from the southern hemisphere. I really like the way Bret Kollmann Baker put this in Urban Artifact’s Brewer’s Wild Pitch #4

fresh hop beers are one of the last true seasonals in craft beer.

Challenges in Making Wet Hopped Beer

Another reason hops are pelletized is that they are a lot easier for brewers to work with. Pellet hops take up less storage space, they largely dissolve in the boil, and they don’t absorb as much beer, have consistent quality, and don’t clog your pipes. These are all major problems that breweries have to negotiate when using wet hops.

MadTree’s brewhouse isn’t set up to handle fresh hops, so when making Fresh 15 they put all the wet hops into the fermenters to use for dry hopping – adding hops to the fermenter instead of boil. Even then they had to put the wet hops into bags before putting them in the fermenter to prevent clogging the centrifuge and filters. The 72 pounds of Centennial they added in dry hopping sucked up another 5 percent of beer vs. a similar hopped pale ale. Losing about 5 percent of that batch accounts to nearly one barrel worth of beer – or about 248 pints. Given how much beer MadTree puts out in a single brew, that might not seem like much but it’s worth about $1,240!

Ohio Valley Hops farm
Dave Volkman on his farm at Ohio Valley Hops. Ohio Valley Hops provided the hops for Urban Artifacts Calliope.

Urban Artifact ran into bigger problems. They started adding the wet hops into the boil at the 20-minute mark, brewers add hops at various points to emphasize various characteristics of the hop like bitterness vs. flavor, and everything went smoothly until they went to cool it down. You add hops to boiling wort and then have to get the wort down to 70° before adding yeast. That cooldown process normally takes Urban Artifact 10 minutes, with the wet hops it took 4 hours. This extended cooldown was due to the amount of wet hop residue sucked into pipes, pumps, and heat exchanger. They then had to spend 10 hours the next day cleaning the hops out of everything.

A third problem is simply availability. You have to have a hop farm near you that produces enough quantity of a single style. Ohio has a rapidly growing hop farming community, but it’s still very small compared to what is grown in Washington and Oregon. Even with the number of farms increasing farmers are still testing out which varieties of hops grow best, so they may not have the volume of a single hop required by a larger brewery.

Wet Hop Examples

Ed. Note: This list is from 2015, I imagine many of these beers will return this year.

It seems nearly every brewery makes a pumpkin beer, and many make an Oktoberfest/Marzen, but few make a wet hopped beer. That said here are a few local and a few nation examples of the style for you to try.

  • MadTree – Fresh 15
  • Fifty West – Hoppy When Wet
  • Urban Artifact – Calliope – Belgian style Grand Cru fermented with wild yeast that’ll be out sometime in October.
  • DogBerry – Cascade Wet Hopped Pale Ale
  • Founders – Harvest Ale
  • Sierra Nevada – Hemisphere
  • Deschutes – Chasin’ Freshies
  • Fat Heads – Hop Stalker
  • Left Hand – Warrior IPA
  • Two Brothers – Heavy-Handed

What’s Your Favorite Beer of Fall?

With all this talk of fall beer styles over the past few weeks, I’m curious what your favorite fall beers are? Next week, I’ll be talking about my favorite fall beer, but for now what’s yours?

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