Given the opportunity to write about craft beer every month in Decibel has been eye-opening. The idea that our “Brewtal Truth” column would have lasted more than four years (and counting) and even spawn a book—The Brewtal Truth Guide to Extreme Beers, out in November—is pretty amazing. Now it’s time to bring a little “Brewtal Truth” to the Deciblog. Each week we’re featuring a different craft beer that you should drink now. These aren’t so much reviews as recommendations. We won’t post anything here that we haven’t happily poured down our own gullet. There’ll be a new one every week at noon Eastern time, a little something to get you thinking about your imbibing options for the weekend.
While everyone has been going batshit crazy for pumpkin ales—which every year seem to get stranger and stranger and more abundant—we wanted to bring up another seasonal brew that you don’t want to miss. Like the pumpkin beers, it is made with a fresh agricultural product, but it ain’t a bulbous orange gourd. We’re talking wet-hopped or fresh-hopped beers. These are brews made with freshly picked hop flowers. Typically hop flowers are dried (or sort of lightly toasted) to preserve them. They are then either packaged into bales and sold to breweries as “whole cone hops” or they are ground up and pelletized. Some breweries swear by whole cone hops for imparting the full hop complexity they are looking for (however, they are messy to deal with), but many fine hop-laden beers are made with pelletized hops. As with anything that comes from a farm, fresh is best. For wet-hopped ales it is crucial that the newly picked flowers are used immediately after they are picked because they degrade quickly and lose some of that special sauce that makes them smell and taste so good. Hops in the northern hemisphere are harvested in the fall, so this is when you start seeing them show up. Our advice: find one locally made (or regionally made) and drink it ASAP to enjoy the unique character of fresh hops.
Wet-Hopped Pale Ale
Don’t bother looking for the beer pictured above, unless you happen to live in Western British Columbia. Most hop-centric craft brewers will make some version of a wet-hopped ale. Most will be an IPA or double IPA, since that style obviously lends itself to spotlighting hops. Hoyne’s annual Wolf Vine (a loose translation of the Latin name for hops, humulus lupulus) release is actually a pale ale. It looks and smells like an IPA, but is considerably lighter bodied and less bitter. As such, it allows for a very honest assessment of what fresh hops bring to the table.
If you happen to live near where hops are actually grown, all the better. Wolf Vine is in fact made with Cascade and Centennial hops grown on the BC mainland and you can practically smell the fields they were growing in when you take a whiff of this well made APA (American Pale Ale—think Sierra Nevada Pale Ale). There is an herbaceous freshness, somewhat akin to just-cut grass that is generally found in varying degrees in most wet-hopped ales. A little of that grassy goodness is great, but too much can be off-putting. Beyond that, Wolf Vine has plenty of the resinous pine and grapefruit notes that are classic “C” hop characteristics.
As good as they smell, brewers need to no doubt resist the urge to go overboard with such wonderfully pungent freshies, because balance in a beer is always important. Thus, this beer has plenty of hop flavor to it without demolishing tastebuds or overshadowing the malt. Though this is totally well-balanced for the style, it does lack the florid, ostentatious hop character that would be appropriate in a higher ABV beer. Basically, if you build a bigger bigger, you can generally add more hops. At a, relatively speaking, restrained 5.3% ABV, this has just the right amount of hops for the style and is totally sessionable, but our own preference is for something a little more over-the-top during hop-harvest season. After all, it only happens once a year, so why not really do it up?
Now is the time to look for these beers—whether it’s at your local brewpub, brewery or bottleshop. So put aside the pumpkin ales for a bit. They won’t lose any of their pumpkinny, uh, goodness. But wet-hopped ales won’t (and shouldn’t) be around for long. (Curse the brewer who attempts to make a wet-hopped pumpkin ale…)