Hopping: Fresh, Wet or Dry, Ay-ay-ay!

Hops in the Yakima Valley, Washington

Commercially grown hops in the Yakima Valley, Washington

It’s that most wonderful time of year again for hopheads, the season when craft breweries all over the United States tout and tap fresh-hopped beers. In the Pacific Northwest, home to the largest hop growing regions in the country, these brews even get their own festivals. This year’s Hood River (Oregon) Hop Fest on September 24 will showcase 75 fresh-hopped offerings from 50 breweries.

But what, exactly, does “fresh-hopped” mean? The term is generally interchangeable with “wet-hopped,” meaning brewers use hops fresh from the field (=wet) as opposed to the more frequently used kiln-dried hops.

Kiln-drying hops at Perrault Farms, Yakima, Washington

Kiln-drying hops at Perrault Farms, Toppenish, Washington

Because hops begin to lose aroma, flavor and bitterness as quickly as 24 hours after harvesting, the window for brewing fresh-hopped beers is no more than a few weeks in a region. The rest of the year, craft brewers rely primarily on dried hop cones or pellets while macro brewers like MillerCoors and Anheuser-Busch generally use hop extracts and pellets.

Homebrewers, who tend to enjoy experimenting, often jump at the chance to fresh- or wet-hop. And what better source than homegrown hops?

Chris Meixelsperger, a Salinas, California homebrewer of 19 years, harvested four pounds from his backyard this year. Since a five-gallon batch of homebrew only requires a few ounces of hops, in addition to wet-hopping, Meixelsperger dries a portion of his harvest on old screen doors inside his garage.

Meixelsperger tending his hops

Meixelsperger tending his hops

Raising hops involves more than simply sticking a rhizome in the ground and waiting. Most often these days, hop-growing homebrewers order rhizomes online. Meixelsperger got his first ones in 2005 from a friend who lived on a family farm near Ukiah in northern California where his grandfather had grown hops beginning in the late 1800s. (Most of northern California’s hop growing was wiped out in the 1950s by downy mildew.)

Meixelsperger took those Cascade rhizomes back to his then home in cool, coastal Monterey—where the first year they yielded ten cones, less than one ounce. When he moved 15 miles inland, he dug up the rhizomes and took them along. With warmer temperatures and increased sunlight, the plants took off, yielding a pound of cones the first summer. Since then, he has planted Willamette and Mt. Hood varieties, also.

Each spring, when the rhizomes begin to send out their first shoots, Meixelsperger feeds them with 15-15-15 fertilizer. Throughout the summer, he mixes coffee grinds and egg shells into the soil around each plant. A drip irrigation system waters them for twenty minutes, three times a week. The result is happy, healthy bines that cling and curl themselves around twine attached to 16-foot high tree stakes. (Vines use tendrils to climb anything, including walls. Bines wrap themselves around things.)

Meixelsperger and early season bines

Meixelsperger and early season bines

By Labor Day, the bines are laden with full, mature cones. After harvesting, Meixelsperger cuts the bines back to the ground. The tree stakes, popular with the local birds, remain in place, ready for next spring.

Meixelsperger’s advice to future hop growers is simple enough: give the plants plenty of sun, warm to hot weather, food, water, something to climb and by summer’s end, you too, can be counting your cones by the pound. And his favorite variety? Cascade. “It’s very vigorous and hearty. It grows like a weed. I have to cut back new shoots all summer long.”

The awards' wall at Meixelsperger Brewing Company (aka the family garage)

The awards’ wall at Meixelsperger Brewing Company (aka the family garage)

When and how brewers use fresh hops varies. As with dried hops, pellets or extracts, they can be used early in the brewing boil for bitterness. A lot of the aroma and flavor is boiled off within 15 minutes, leaving only the hop bitterness (measured in International Bittering Units or IBUs). Hops added in the last 1-15 minutes of the boil are primarily for aroma and flavor, contributing minimally to bitterness. They can also be added during or after fermentation, known as dry-hopping, strictly for aroma and flavor. And, yes, you can dry-hop with wet hops.

Meixelsperger says he usually adds most of his at the beginning of the boil with a few at the end. “I have played around with dry hopping in the fermenter and also in the kegs but I don’t normally do that. I also use the hops for tea in the evenings. It’s not a great flavor like you might think but it makes you really sleepy.”

Whether you prefer your hops in a tea or a beer, there’s nothing like the real, wet deal.

Comments

  1. Jim Dougherty says:

    Great article!

  2. Cat Gunderson says:

    I enjoyed reading your well written and interesting article, Leslie, and it inspired me to reply, and to mention thats I also have grown hops (for around 6 years). I have a big crop (the oldest crop) that I grow horizontally at my community garden, and a couple years ago I brought some different varieties of rhizomes over to my front yard from the Cabrillo Horticulture hop yard that was being taken out. I grow those up the front of my two story house. This year they grew at least 25 feet high. I was amazed.
    On Sunday I was one of 5 women brewers who “helped” (mostly hung out) Cat West brew a red ale with a couple big bags of freshly picked hops at Seabright Brewery. We haven’t come up with a name for it yet. I wanted to put a few sprigs of my Motherwort in it and call it “Mother’s Wort” (all women brew), but it needs to be a name that indicates something ocean or coastal to be served there. Cat West is a lot of fun and a good teacher (not that I could brew a couple hundred gallons at a time like she does).

    • Leslie Patino says:

      Hi Cat, thanks for your comments. It sounds like you’ve found the right environments for your hops. I would have loved to help/hang out with the women brewers up in Santa Cruz. If there are future activities like that, please let me know!

  3. Cat Gunderson says:

    Hi Leslie,
    Of course I will let you know, and vice versa. See you Saturday.
    Cat (Catharine Gunderson)

Speak Your Mind

*