Reap the benefit of the hop harvest

Homebrewing with fresh hops

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Amy Martin

Vibrant. That’s the word one brewer used to describe this special beer. I agree; it’s as if the flavor is bursting with a ripe hop essence that delicately permeates the entire beer. You can’t get this from using hop pellets, oils or even whole leaf hops. These beers go by many names — harvest, wet-hopped or fresh-hopped beer. Regardless of what you call them, the brew schedule is at the mercy of the once-a-year hop harvest because they are made with hops fresh off the bine.

I’ve always wanted to brew a harvest ale, but due to the unique time frame and lack of resources, I didn’t have the opportunity until this year. Obtaining fresh hops can be a challenge — many hop farms receive large orders from breweries, which doesn’t leave much for homebrewers. If you’re lucky, you may find some at your local homebrew store. Or perhaps you’ll stumble upon a volunteer opportunity, like the one Scott Ziebell, founder and co-owner of Longmont’s Colorado Hop Company, offers.

“We have a ton of volunteers and a lot of them are homebrewers, so they’ll get their wet hops directly from the field,” Ziebell says. “Everybody’s just really curious, so it’s just a fun day to have them come out.”

If you aren’t able to find fresh hops, you can always grow your own. Just know it’s a long-term investment — it can take three to four years for hop plants to fully produce. Many homebrew shops and hop farms sell hop rhizomes (roots cut from a full-grown hop plant) for individuals to plant at home.

My employer has a few Chinook hop plants growing in their beer garden and allowed me to harvest some for my homebrew. When harvesting, I highly recommend wearing a good pair of work gloves. I learned the hard way that being immersed in hop plants can be a sticky, itchy business.

Knowing when to harvest hops can be tricky.

“The moisture content is going to drop, and it’s going to be more papery,” Ziebell says. “So that sound, that papery crunchy sound, is really going to let you know that it’s getting closer to harvesting.”

David Warren, farm owner and manager of High Wire Hops in Paonia, has another method: “Pull the cone apart, and you can see glands along the center stem of the column or the ‘strig’ — as they mature, they go from clear to more opaque to a vibrant yellow-orange depending on the variety.”

After harvesting, it is imperative to use fresh hops within 48 hours. I brewed with mine about 15 hours post-harvest, and it was quite successful. I’ve heard of using fresh hops during many different phases of a brew, but I decided to add them at the end of the boil. As I dropped them in, a heavenly hoppy aroma wafted up — the stuff of every beer lover’s dreams. It takes time and a bit of work, but I can attest that the process and final product of brewing a harvest ale is well worth it.   

Home hop growing

Amy Martin

David Warren of High Wire Hops and Scott Ziebell of Colorado Hop Company offer advice for home hop growers.

  • Plant rhizomes horizontally. “If you look at a rhizome, it has nodes across it, so if you plant it horizontally, all those nodes are going to be an inch, inch and a half from the soil’s surface,” Warren says. “You don’t want to plant it too deep because if you do, it oftentimes won’t make it to the soil surface into the sun.
  • Label your hops. “The most common call I get from home growers is, ‘I don’t know what hops I’ve got, I planted three varieties and I have no idea what I have right now,’” Zibell says. “It’s not as easy as you’d think to be able to come out and identify what they have.”
  • Keep them wet. “Keep them really well watered, don’t let the soil dry out at all, keep it moist — hops can really handle a lot of moisture,” Warren instructs.
  • Let them grow as high as you possibly can. “A lot of people [grow hops] for aesthetic reasons, you know for some cover, and they get some good hops off them. But if you can get them up to that 12-16 foot range, you’re going to get a big yield,” Ziebell advises.