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The Business of Beer: When Can Something Dried Be Fresh?

Alex Fossi, November 18, 2013 -   

If you like a good fresh-hopped beer, you have to appreciate everything Sierra Nevada has done to grow the style. Their Northern Hemisphere Harvest was first released all the way back in 1996, which makes it the first commercially released American fresh-hopped beer. I haven't been able to find numbers to verify this, but I strongly suspect that they sell more fresh-hopped beer than any other American brewer.  They now have both a Southern and Northern version of their Harvest IPA, as well as DevESTATEtion (a fresh-hopped black IPA), and Celebration (a fresh-hopped winter holiday IPA). For fans of fresh hops, this is a bounty.

If you go to Sierra Nevada's website, though, you'll find something odd -- the hops in each of these beers are described slightly differently. Northern Hemisphere's hops are "wet." Southern Hemisphere's are "fresh."  DevESTATEtion's are "estate-grown." And Celebration's hops don't have any special descriptor at all -- they're just listed as standard Cascade and Centennial. Just a labeling decision, maybe?  

Have you been keeping up with Beer On My Shirt's work?  You should; his latest involved the care and maintenance of record players and children shitting in tubs.  

Thinking of it as just a beer review would be an injustice. If you read it, you know that "wet-hopped" and "fresh-hopped" are two different things. "Wet-hopped" beers are made with hops taken directly from the growing sites -- undried, untreated whole hop cones are added to the beer, and because they aren't dried, these hops keep just 24 hours after being picked. Next time you're at a party, a fun thing to do is tell strangers that you can dry hop with wet hops. They'll think you're wacky and extroverted!

Because of the strict timeframe imposed when you use wet hops, brewers often pull all-nighters to get the hops into the beer in time. When most people think of fresh-hopped beers, these fresh-from-the-field wet hops are what they're thinking of.

"Fresh-hopped", however, is a less well-defined term.  Some breweries use this interchangably with wet-hopped -- if it's dried, it's not fresh. Makes sense to me.  

Others use "fresh-hopped" to mean that they used hops in whole cone form, even if those hops have been dried. This terminology is debateable, to say the least. Most of us wouldn't think of a dried plant as "fresh." If you went to the grocery and asked for fresh basil, it would make no sense for them to present a jar of dried basil to you. Sure, using whole hops is different than using the more common hop pellets that have been dried, treated, and homogenized, but calling a dried hop "fresh" seems incorrect.

Still, even if it's a bit odd to use "fresh" to mean "dried," it's not the end of the world -- we just have to assume that "fresh" means "whole-cone." However, the fun doesn't stop there.

To add more confusion, there are a lot of breweries that use whole hops in their beers. Not just their seasonal, fresh-hop beers. All of their beers. Victory Brewery does not distribute any "fresh-hopped" beers -- but every one of their beers is made with whole-cone hops. Other breweries might call these beers fresh-hopped, but as far as I can tell, Victory does not use that term to describe their beer.

Another brewery that uses whole hops almost exclusively is Deschutes. Now, Deschutes does have a couple "fresh-hopped" beers, but judging from the description, these would also count as "wet-hopped":

"Each year around Labor Day, Deschutes brewers high-tail it over the pass to Doug Weather’s hop fields near Salem for the harvest. After bagging these aromatic jewels, we hustle back and toss them into the brew kettles within four hours of picking."

Sounds like a wet-hopped beer to me.

Let's go back to Sierra Nevada. I don't want to insinuate that they're being deceptive about their beer -- in fairness, they do have a very clear statement on each beer's page that explains how they choose which label to use for the beer. Take a gander:

"Over recent years, there has been some confusion about the difference between fresh and wet hops. While it may seem like semantics, to us it’s an important distinction.

Wet Hops are un-dried hops, picked and shipped from the growing fields within 24 hours.

Fresh Hops are the freshest dried hops to come from the fields, typically within seven days of harvest."

So fresh hops are whole cone hops, but they have to have been picked in the last week. They do have a couple other whole-cone-hopped beers, but presumably the age of those hops isn't guaranteed.

Basically, they're splitting hops into four categories: wet (whole hops that are never dried), fresh (whole hops picked in the last seven days, dried), whole cone (dried, not fresh), and pellet. Deschutes and Victory, on the other hand, don't use that definition of "fresh" -- they refer to their hops as either "fresh" (meaning wet) or "whole-cone" (meaning dried), with no middle ground.

The confusion stems not from any one brewery, but from the fact that no one seems to agree on what the word "fresh" means here.

I'm not suggesting that we necessarily need more oversight of how these beers are labeled. Yeah, it'd be nice if the labeling were clear, but it seems like a lot of trouble to go to over a relatively minor linguistic quibble. If you're like me, though, and get excited about wet-hopped beers, it's worth a few minutes of your time to do some research. Celebration and Southern Hemisphere Harvest are great beers, but if what you want is a truly fresh hop, you'll want to make sure that the word fresh means what you think it means before you buy a beer.

You can follow Alex on Twitter @AlexanderFossi.

Thanks to user Oast House Archive on Wiki Commons for the header picture.

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