The last leaves are preparing to fall off of the trees here in the DC area, and Fall seems to have officially made its presence felt since Daylight Savings Time ended and everyone is leaving work under cover of darkness, but fear not these next cold dark months. New seasons bring new seasonal beers!
That’s right. Its November and I’m talking about seasonal beer. Obviously I’m going to talk about my favorite Pumpkin Spice Fall Jack-O-Lantern Warmer Ale with a full pound of cinnamon and nutmeg in a single batch! …right?…
Well, while there are indeed several good pumpkin beers out there (like this ‘un), around this time of year you can also see the emergence of another style that can only really be made in the fall (unless you’ve got the capital to pay a huge FedEx bill, but I will address that momentarily), and that is the increasingly popular Wet Hop or Harvest Ale. The ‘harvest’ in the name of this style refers to the hop harvest which generally occurs during the month of September when the cones (or flowers) of the hop plant fully ripen on the vine.
In the U.S. and abroad, harvest time for hops usually involves the picking and subsequent drying of these flowers. The dried hops are then shredded, crushed into a crumbly paste, and extruded into pellets; thereby turning this:
Looks appealing huh?
Well guess what. These little guys are just one of the many modern advances that allows you to enjoy your favorite IPA in June even though it was brewed in February and the hops were picked months before that.
There are critics of this process who argue that the pelletization process traps vital oils inside each granule that will never again see the light of day (or your taste buds), but hey, if we didn’t preserve our crops somehow we’d never have made it out of the stone age (and think of what you’d do without bacon, our most prized preserved food).
The fact is that this form of “hop extract” is present in almost every beer you drink from that warm Miller Lite you just had to the bottles of Bourbon County Stout that you would never give 22 of your hard earned dollars to Whole Foods for (even though it is so damn good. Well… Maybe just this one 4-pack would be ok…). Which is precisely the reason that Wet Hop ales are so rare and precious.
Every year in September a small percentage of hop cones are saved from the shredding and crushing and are instead rushed via overnight mail to breweries around the country where they are immediately incorporated into small batches of beer (typically Pale Ales and IPAs, 2 styles which showcase hops).
Some examples of these beers are Goose Island Harvest Ale, Southern Tier Harvest Ale, Founder’s Harvest Ale (notice a theme?), and Chatoe Rogue: First Growth Wet Hop Ale; the name ‘Chatoe’ being a playful nod to the fact that the hops for this brew all come from the fields at the brewery itself.
Sierra Nevada has taken this concept a step farther with its dual Northern and Southern Hemisphere Harvest Ales, going so far as to fly fresh hops from fields in New Zealand in order to create a wet hop beer in April (as it would of course then be Autumn ‘down undah’).
The beers themselves, though generously hopped, tend to lack some of the sharp bitter bite associated with other hoppy beers even from the same brewery. Weyerbacher Harvest Ale for instance has an earthy, grassy, almost vegetal quality to the aroma and lots of bright citrus notes and biscuity malt to create what I find to be a very balanced version of a regular American Pale Ale.
I personally am a big fan of the subdued and complexly aromatic qualities that these wet hop beers exhibit, and they are are a great way to ease yourself into hoppier styles of beer, especially if you are generally opposed to too much bitterness in your beer.
As far as pairing with food goes, I have a theory (that I love to test constantly) that the hops in these styles can be seen almost as another herbal component to a dish, thereby making them a great companion to any from of caprese salad (tomatoes, mozzarella, and Basil), or even just a simple green salad. They are also good stand-ins for your favorite Pale Ale alongside a burger, pizza, or even spicy food like Mexican or Thai (think Cilantro).
So hopefully now you have a better understanding of some of the beers you’ve seen popping up in your local store. Please feel free to use your newfound knowledge to shut down your friend the next time he/she tries to lord his/her worldliness over you (Them: “Man, I love this *random obscure beer*” You: “Pellet Hops? Ugh. I only drink beer made with hops that still have a soul. Them: “Wow, what a pretentious dick thing to say.” You: “Oh hey, you’re right. Fucking Brew Manchu blog.”). Or maybe just enjoy your beer quietly…
Either way, happy drinking!