Wet hopped beers: Behind the brew

Look out, Christmas! For many breweries in Nova Scotia, early to mid-September is the most wonderful time of the year.

It’s not because temperatures are starting to drop, or because school has started again . . . it’s due to the fact that it’s hop harvesting season. Hops are one of the favourite ingredients of many brewers, and with each yearly harvest comes the opportunity to brew wet-hopped beers.

After being harvested, the majority of hops are dried, analyzed, pelletized and then stored cool and as oxygen-free as possible, in order to preserve them properly. Wet-hopped beers, however, involve using freshly harvested hops within hours of the harvest — that are dripping with the oils that provide the aroma and flavour-rich properties.

Breweries that are very close to hop yards or even better grow their own hops on site are the ones that are most likely to take part in brewing a wet-hopped beer every harvest season.

For breweries that grow their own hops in a minimal fashion, obtaining help in actually picking the fresh flowers from the plant is the first step. Every year, Nyanza’s Big Spruce Brewing puts out a call for workers/volunteers to aid in the harvesting of their 1/2 acre, which is typically a several-days -long process.

Getting locals involved isn’t just a way to get the job done quicker — it makes them part of the process, and in effect results in a truly community-made beer. Big Spruce’s wet-hopped beer from last year, “Craig Goes Yard,” was even named in honour of one of their hopyard workers. At Meander River Farm and Brewery, neighbours, friends, and family helped to harvest the eight different varieties from the farm, adjacent to the brewery.

While the two days of cutting down bines and removing the hops from the plant are long, stories, laughs and a beer or two help to make the work go quickly.

In true collaborative fashion, Shelburne’s Boxing Rock Brewery and Halifax’s North Brewing have teamed up for the past four years to brew “Many Hands Ale.” This year’s brew features freshly-picked Cascade, Crystal, Goldings and Willamette hops from Wallace Ridge Farm in Malagash, on the north shore of the province.

North’s Peter Burbridge enjoys using this annual brew as a way to celebrate local farmers.

“It is an opportunity to display a Nova Scotia-grown product,” he says. “This year it is especially exciting because we can use grain malted in Nova Scotia, by Horton Ridge Malt & Grain Company. We are closer and closer to having a beer that is 100 per cent made in Nova Scotia.”

Utilizing freshly harvested hops in a typical brew isn’t as easy as one may think. Due to the moisture retention, wet hops weigh about five times as much as dried hops, meaning that brewers have to add much more for similar results. Since many small breweries simply don’t have a system capable of withstanding this greatly-increased vegetal mass, modifications and compromises often have to be made.

Six-foot-long muslin bags come in handy when dealing with the kilograms of hops destined for the brew, otherwise the sheer mass of leafy green would clog the ports, pump and heat exchanger at the end of the brew day. During his brew of “Home Grown,” Meander River’s wet hop beer, Alan Bailey chose to not put any hops in the boil kettle. “We made a ‘hop tea’ with 50 per cent of the hops and used that liquid for mashing in. Then we use our mash tun as a hop back post-boil, and pass the wort through the other 50 per cent of the hops.”

When sourcing hops, brewers are provided with information on the alpha and beta acid values (an indicator of their potential bittering strength) and oil content — all are key for plugging into the final recipe. There is an air of the unknown when dealing with these wet hops, as they often come with no such analysis report. For Burbridge, that only adds to the experience, for both brewer and imbiber.

“What you get in the end is not 100 per cent predictable and that adds to the romance of these beers. This beer will have a more ‘rustic’ hop profile because the hops are not picked, graded, dried and pelletized in a factory farm setting.

“As a result, wet hop beers have more of a terroir.”

But what about the end product … is it all worth the extra effort? Many brewers, and beer-drinkers, are drawn to wet-hopped beers as they highlight the best qualities of the ingredient, which can include a more resinous and grassy flavour profile. Bailey sums it up well.

“We find wet hops have a unique taste compared to the dried variety, not unlike how fresh basil tastes completely different from dry basil, and this unique fresh taste is expressed in the final beer.”

by CBANS