The fall hop harvest is starting in Wisconsin. That means a steady increase in wet hop brewing in the weeks ahead and into October, in which hops picked fresh from fields with little or no drying are used to make beer.
Peter Gentry, owner of One Barrel Brewing on Madison's east side, went directly to a hop field near Oconomowoc on Labor Day to select the hops that will go into a series of beers he plans to release in late September. "There are not a ton of fresh hop beers out there," he says. "We are lucky that we brew on such a small scale that we can actually go get the hops and brew with them the same day -- to get the most out of the hops."
The practice of breweries creating fresh hop beers is growing in Wisconsin. Last year, a quintet of five state breweries collaborated with the Midwest Hops and Barley Cooperative to brew a special series of wet hop beers, releasing them simultaneously in 22-ounce bomber bottles. This year, Central Waters Brewing, Lakefront Brewery, and Sprecher Brewing plan to release new wet-hopped creations.
The fresh hop varieties One Barrel is currently using include Cascade, Centennial and Nugget. They mostly came from the farm of Rich Joseph, located north of Oconomowoc. Joseph is a member of the Wisconsin Hop Exchange, a cooperative that assists farmers in growing the hops for brewers around the state. In a case of neighbors helping neighbors over beers, Gentry also got a few pounds of Centennial hops from Josh Wacker, one of the owners of the nearby Alchemy Cafe, who grew them in his backyard.
After cutting hop vines in the morning with his assistant brewer Dan Sherman, Gentry brought them to One Barrel, where he asked patrons to help him pick the flowers from them. The flowers, or cones, are the part of the plant used for beer, and it's very labor intensive to carefully pick them from vines in quantities large enough for brewing. In fact, it took several patrons several hours on Monday just to accumulate about 25 pounds that will be used for Gentry's fresh hop brews. Those who helped out got beers at special prices in compensation for their role in the harvest.
After picking, the hops were immediately turned over to Sherman, who instantly put them to use in the brew kettle. There's a certain urgency when it comes to beers being called fresh- and wet-hopped. "Within six to 12 hours, those hops were in the brew pot," Gentry says.
Gentry and Sherman are planning to brew at least five fresh hop beers involving different combinations of the hops they harvested. They intend to make at least two American pale ales, an IPA, a deep black Cascadian Ale (i.e., an India black ale), and a special version of One Barrel's Penguin Pale Ale, a beer that is almost always on tap over the bar at the brewery.
Gentry says One Barrel is also using some of the whole leaf hops in a hopback (that is, a Blichmann HopRocket) to add bitterness to several other brews. A hopback is a filter the beer is run through, with the opposite effect of a water filter. Here, the result is an infusion of hop flavor and aromatics. Gentry and Sherman also plan to add some of the fresh hops to a few firkins (small kegs) of different beers so they can offer patrons various takes on hoppy flavors.
To celebrate the harvest and its new lineup of bitter brews, One Barrel is throwing a fresh hop party on Saturday, Sept. 28. More details will be provided on the brewery's Facebook page, but Gentry says the bar will open at noon as usual, with about a dozen kegs (and assorted firkins) of freshly hopped product on tap.