Deep within the hop fields of the Yakima Valley, the sun rises on a field of hops that have reached their peak ripeness. A field worker stands atop a flatbed, slashing each bine at its highest point near the twine as another worker drives the truck through the aisles, allowing the bines to pile at the bed of the truck. It's day 16 of harvest and the farm has been running 24/7 to ensure each variety is picked during its optimal harvest window.
As the truck reaches max capacity, the workers make their way back to the picking facility. Hop bines are processed and cones are separated, leaving the excess vegetative matter for compost. Rather than heading to the kiln, these hop cones are loaded into a truck to travel across the valley to the YCH HOPS cold storage warehouse, where they are boxed, shipped and made into beer within a matter of hours.
This year, as the hops left YCH, our team followed a load of Citra® Green Hops® fresh from BT Loftus Ranches over the Cascades to Three Magnets Brewing in Olympia, WA to witness firsthand the excitement of a fresh-hop ale brew day. On-site, we were met by Head Brewer Patrick Jansen who has been brewing with green hops since 2009. With Patrick’s help and guidance, we received the full farm-to-kettle experience from a brewer’s perspective.
For many brewers, including the staff at Three Magnets, receiving a shipment of Green Hops® is often compared to Christmas morning as it is part of a special season that only happens once per year. The logistics of the product are unpredictable and time-sensitive, so a lot of effort goes into the timing and preparation for brewing a fresh hop ale. Brew schedules are cleared and kettles are emptied because wet hops must be used within 36 hours of harvest.
“The real challenge working with fresh hops comes in the timing of the batch of beer. Unless you plan on making fresh hop beers every week of the month of September, planning turns into a guessing game. Often a brewery has to put off brewing a ‘flagship’ or core beer to make wet hop beers and that can negatively affect a steady supply.”
For smaller craft breweries with limited storage, the timing of shipments for ingredients can throw off an entire schedule. Green Hops® are shipped via Next Day Air delivery, but the exact drop off-time and date is unknown until just 24 hours before. As a result, many brewers get an early start on the day to mash in and prepare for the hops’ arrival. Dependency on a same-brew-day delivery can also cause fresh hop ale brewing to run into the late hours of the night.
“From the first time I brewed with fresh hops, the process has been the same; after mash is done, clear the mash tun ensuring 99% of the grain is removed. Then load the mash tun with fresh hops and when boil/whirlpool/hot stand is over transfer still hot wort into hops. This system sees no wet hops in contact with the boil and preserves more of the fresh, un-kilned character of the hops.
Making changes to a process that works on a beer that you only get to make once a year is a difficult decision to make. Usually, a bittering charge of pellets is added at the beginning of boil. The idea is a balance of purist, fresh hops only and to use the fresh hops where they matter the most. This year at Three Magnets we’ll make two wet hop beers.”
When the time came, the Green Hops® were unloaded and dumped one by one into the kettle. A fragrant, hoppy aroma filled the entire brewery, an unforgettable scent that the brewers agreed was just one of their favorite aspects of brewing with wet hops.
“The best part of brewing with fresh hops is the once a year shot. All of that growing season is right there often less than 12 hours off the field and into a beer. It is as close as working with hops in a non-commodity way one can get. You get to experience all of the changes one season to the next can influence before drying down blows off much of the subtle characters. The Mosaic’s this year were amazing! One last note, I’ve been blown away by the quality of the fresh hop beers this year! Most of what I’ve tasted have been excellent.”
Of course with any brew day, there was also a lot of sitting and waiting, which left plenty of time for our crew to connect with the Three Magnets staff, taste a few of the delicious beers on tap, experience the in-house cuisine and discuss the art of Green Hops®.
“The most common feedback we get on our wet hop beers is about how drinkable they are. We aim for a high 5% range on the beers avoiding turning them into an IPA. Also, we want the beers to be balanced, not too bitter, not too grassy or vegetal, just malty enough to support the hops. When we were starting out and we had beer on at our local spots in Olympia it was our wet hop beers that got us on at several locations in Seattle.”
Three weeks after the brew day, Three Magnet’s 2016 Citra Wet Hop was featured at the annual Fresh Hop Ale Festival in Yakima, Washington, where we were able to taste the finished product – thus completing our field to pint experience.
A big thanks to the brewers at Three Magnets Brewing for the hospitality and welcoming us into the brewery!
For more information about our Green Hops® program, click here. Stay tuned for information about the upcoming Green Hops® season including ordering deadlines and availability, coming Spring 2017!