Every year there is a window, a few weeks, when our Instagram feeds are filled with green — images of brewers rubbing hops between their hands, of hop farmers pulling down their bines covered in thousands of delicate cones, of all things hoppy, leafy, and fresh. And just a few weeks later there’s another, more magical window: the short season of the fresh-hopped beer.
Fresh-hopped beers are a flash on the seasonal beer calendar, part of a brief period when “juiciness” and “fresh passion fruit” are left behind for subtle, grassy notes that only come from hops added to the boil kettle or whirlpool within hours of being harvested. These beers are the fruits of the brief but intense labor of the hop harvest between mid-August and the end of September or early October. As such, the time for fresh-hop and wet-hop beer releases is fleeting — they’re usually on the market for about three weeks before they’re gone for another year.
Of course, this is part of what makes them extremely appealing. If you live far from hop-growing regions like the Pacific Northwest, however, you may not get to taste a wet-hopped beer (using never-dried hops straight from the harvest) all season — unless, of course, you brew it yourself.
Homebrewing With Fresh Hops
One of the most obvious conundrums when homebrewing with fresh hops is that there is no way of knowing the chemical makeup of oils inside the cones, most importantly the quantity of alpha acids that will be isomerized in the boil determining the level of bitterness (measured as IBUs) in the finished beer.
For homebrewers growing their own hops, this might not matter much, “since in most cases, the entire harvest will be added,” says Daniel van Dijk, a bar owner based in Louisville, Ky., who has been homebrewing for 12 years.
With this in mind, part of brewing with fresh hops becomes an exercise in recipe development. Instead of writing a recipe with the flavor and balance of the finished beer in mind, brewing with fresh hops is more of an experiment to answer the question, “What will this taste like?”
That answer will depend partially on how fresh the hops are when they are added to the wort while brewing or the beer during fermentation.
Rusty Burrell, a software engineer who has been homebrewing for more than eight years — and homebrewing with his own hops for five of those years — supplements his hops with hop pellets. “I tend to use regular hop pellets for bittering, and use the homegrown hops for aroma, flavor, and late boil additions,” Burrell says.
Brewers who have been growing hops for more than 10 years and have more prosperous harvests can use hops at every stage of the brewing process. This is a technique Annie Johnson, 2013 Homebrewer of the Year and homebrewer of 20 years uses in her fresh-hopped beers. She not only harvests fresh cones to use on brew day, but also “quickly vacuum seals some,” she says, and saves them for dry hopping.
Can You Dry-Hop With Fresh Hops?
“Many people say, ‘that’s a no-no, you’ll get contamination, you’ll get oxidation,’ but I haven’t found that at all,” says Johnson, who is also brewmaster-in-residence at homebrewing appliance company PicoBrew. Johnson believes fresh hops work well as a dry hopping addition because, once the beer is fermented, “I have a finished beer with alcohol in it, so it’s a little more resistant [to infection],” she says. “Plus, there is a nice layer of CO2 in the carboy [fermenter].”
To dry-hop with fresh hops, Johnson packs the fresh hops down the neck of her carboy, gives it a few swirls, and lets the hops infuse for a few days. The result is a better and stronger flavor, she says.
As a general rule, brewers will detect the most noticeable difference in flavor when brewing with hops picked straight from the bine. To do this, however, they’ll also need a lot more of them. Burrell adds, “Be aware that because the hops are not dried, you will want to use four to six times the amount you would normally use for store bought dried hop pellets.”
All of that extra vegetal matter has another consequence: wort loss. “If you made a normal five-gallon batch,” says Johnson, “you would end up with three gallons.” In her experience, there may be five or six inches of hop matter at the bottom of the kettle at the end of brew day, she adds. She recommends planning for absorption by starting out brewing at least a seven-and-a-half-gallon batch to end up with the yield of a typical five-gallon recipe.
Why Fresh Hops Are Worth the Wait
Months of work, hours-long harvests, protecting your arms from brutal bines — all for one, maybe two batches of beer. So, why do these homebrewers do it?
The fresh-grown hops give Johnson’s beers a unique flavor she can’t achieve any other way. “You taste the hop and it’s dried form, it’s kind of a banana [flavor] — fresh banana versus a banana chip or an unripe banana. A banana is kind of bright, but not all the way right,” she says.
For Van Dijk, the most rewarding experience with his homegrown hops was collaborating with a local brewery on a saison. “I love the collab idea because my house is located less than a mile from the brewery … and I’m not sure there are many breweries that can say they brew downtown [in Louisville] and have a beer made with hops grown a mile away.”
Burrell has progressed in his hop-growing over the years, moving from pots on a balcony in Washington, D.C., to growing in the ground in his yard in Virginia with an ever-improving setup. He says “it’s pretty easy to do, and a fun project.” Every year, he brews a beer to highlight the flavor of his hops, and some of his favorites have been fall styles to highlight the “annual harvest” aspect of the ingredient. “All of mine have turned out great,” he says.
Next Step: Grow Your Own Fresh Hops
Fresh hops are very hard to source; even the best homebrew shops don’t have access to them. So, unless you have hops in the garden or know someone willing to share their precious harvest, it’s too late for you to brew a fresh-hopped beer this year. The good news is, it’s never too late to start planning your own hop-growing experiment for the next harvest. Stay tuned for everything you need to know to prep for, plant, and harvest your own hops, next up in BIY.