As summer rolls into autumn, we see more rain and less sun, and people are packing away their BBQs whilst holidays become a distant memory. To most, this time of year might seem depressing, but to the homebrewing forager this is the best time of the year.
Along with the apple and hedgerow fruit harvest, the hop plants have fat cones bursting with lupulin – a yellow powder which holds all the goodies needed for beer. Many homebrewers are growing their own but it is possible to find hop plants growing wild and forage those. If you do, just make sure they are accessible to the public. After picking the flowers, it’s possible to put them straight into a beer for a fresh hop beer.
What is a Hop Plant?
Hops (humulus lupulus) are a hardy perennial which grows bines up to 20 ft in one season, usually from around April to September. During the last couple of months of their season, the female plants produce flowers: green cones which hold all the alpha acids (AA%), beta acids, essential oils etc that we require for brewing. If you’d like to know more about the make up of a hop plant, check out our article on hops.
How do I Know if my Hop Plant is Ready?
The cones will be fully formed, and when squeezed between thumb and forefinger will have a papery feel to them. After this simple squeeze, your fingers will probably have quite a strong “beery” scent to them. Others say it smells a bit like cannabis. Interestingly, the hop plant is quite closely related to cannabis.
What Shall I do Once They’re Ready?
Pick them! Commercial growers will dry them and either vacuum pack them, or turn them into hop pellets and vacuum pack them. They are often nitrogen flushed as well. Hops can degrade pretty quickly so processing happens fast. It’s possible to pick your hops, dry them in a dehydrator, vacuum them and place them in a freezer, but it’s also possible to make a wet hop beer.
What’s a Wet Hop Beer?
A wet hop beer, also known as a fresh hop beer or sometimes harvest ale (this can also reference freshly harvested barley), is a beer made with hops picked from the plant and put straight into the beer. The vast majority of commercial brews will use hops which go through the processing above, but this type of beer will use hops picked from the bine within the past few days.
Why Do This?
Using unprocessed hops is a rare occurrence considering their short shelf life, and they have a different character to their dried versions. It allows for a wider range of flavours into the already diverse world of beer.
Sounds Good, How do I Make a Wet Hop Beer?
Very similar to how you would make a regular beer, but maybe one or two things to consider. It makes sense to build a recipe where the hops are centre stage and the majority of the flavour comes from them. With this in mind, a simple malt bill is recommended, but it does depend on the style the hops are going into. I have used a single malt like maris otter before as this can provide a good body if used right. Feel free to use up to 10% dextrine malt for more body and head retention, or some light caramalt to give the beer some colour.
If using one malt, mash at 65°C or higher so the beer has body. The higher the mash temperature the more body it will have.
As it’s not possible to know the AA% of the freshly harvested hops, I use a store bought bittering hop like Magnum for bitterness, and put the fresh hops in at the end of the boil, usually with around three minutes left. This gives the flowers time to stir into the wort without losing too many of the essential oils. I do sometimes stir them in if needed.
When hops are dried, they lose 80% of their weight through loss of moisture. This means that most of those fresh hops going into the boil are actually water. To get the same sort of lupulin levels achieved through “regular” hopping multiply the hop amount by 5. For example, if you’d normally put 20g of dried hops in, you would need 100g of fresh hops for the same effect.
Because so many more hop flowers are needed, this does increase the amount of vegetal matter in the beer. This can impart strong grassy and other undesirable flavours. It will also mean more wort is absorbed into the vegetal matter and there will be more loss.
It’s best to stick to styles which, whilst hoppy, aren’t crazy hopped. NEIPAs and heavily hopped IPAs actually won’t be that great for fresh hop beers. Pale ales, best bitters, English IPAs, milds, are good styles for showcasing raw hops. Feel free to experiment as well, perhaps charging a pilsner with wet hops will give it a unique edge, or bring extra dimension to a stout.
It’s increasingly common to dry hop with fresh hops. I tend to avoid this as my hops are organic and I get a fair few bugs on mine, and I’d rather not put these into a beer.
As for yeast, a clean fermenting American ale yeast like US-05 works fine. Depending on the hops used, some kveik could be a good idea, but I’d stick with a variety which can be fermented cool, like Skare. Fermenting at 30°C or higher might actually drive off some of the more delicate aromas which we want in the beer.
Do I Need To Know Anything Else?
These beers are best drunk fresh. Hop character fades over time, and with wet hopping we capture aromas and flavours which are very volatile and disappear during the drying process. These will fade very quickly, so drink fresh for best results!
This is where kveik can be helpful. Even at cooler temperatures it can ferment faster than the average yeast, meaning the hops are even fresher. If possible keg and quick carbonate the beer. Even if a fresh hopped beer is bottle conditioned, there will still be a range of great flavours available, plus this type of packaging will suit most of the English styles better.
Good luck, and let us know how you got on with your fresh hop brew!