Wet Hop Season at Columbus Brewing Company Nearing its Finale

Despite the recent trend toward an ever-rotating line of one-off hazy IPAs, seasonal beers still exist. Autumn used to be the season of pumpkin ales, spice laden beers that are a curious confectionary treat at their best and an abomination at their worst [1]. Although the marketing folks would like you to believe these beers are a product of the fall harvest, the appearance of Pumking and its brethren on the shelves in early August would suggest otherwise for many pumpkin ales. In striking contrast, another fall favorite—the wet hop ale—is a true harvest beer, inexorably tied to timing of the hop harvest.  Made with freshly picked, whole cone, wet hops these ephemeral beers are generally only available for a few short weeks in late September and early October. If you happen to be travelling at the wrong time or simply distracted by festbiers and marzens you might miss them altogether, but this year wet hop ale season at Columbus Brewing Company (CBC) will stretch from the third week of September and into early November. If you are paying attention, you should be asking, how on Earth is this possible? In this post I do my best to get to the bottom of this mystery and describe some tasty, tasty beer along the way.

Centennial hops at Zachrich Hop Yard near Mechanicsburg, Ohio.

The Fab Five

The gloriously long wet hop season is made possible in large part because CBC has brewed up no less than eight different wet hop beers, each featuring a different hop! The fact that different hop varieties come ripe at different points in time is part of the story. Sourcing hops from three different states—Washington, Oregon, and Michigan—is another part of the answer, but there’s even more to the story as I learned when I reached out to Tony Corder, Innovation Manager at CBC.

Let’s start with a description of the first five wet hop IPAs that were released. All five were made with hops that were picked and transported as fast as possible to Columbus for brewing, either overnighted from the west coast or loaded into a refrigerated truck and driven down from the state up north. All five of these beers came out either in late September or early October, which unfortunately means they are going to be pretty hard to track down at this point in time. That doesn’t mean we can’t learn something about hop varieties and wet hop ales in general from Tony’s descriptions of each beer.

Emerald Fields (American IPA. 6.6% abv) This beer features Centennial hops from CLS Farms in Moxee, WA. The Desmarais family is one of the best growers in the US. Sierra Nevada uses their Centennial in Celebration Ale and I think that’s really all that needs to be said. We are big fans of these folks and were super stoked to buy these hops direct from the farm. The flavors and aromas are prototypical Centennial—grapefruit, lemon, pine, and sweet onion.

West Winds (American IPA, 7.6% abv) Brewed with Chinook hops from Top Hops in Goodrich, Michigan. Victor Pool (Director of Operations) and Drew Dewees (Senior Brewer) were able to drive a van up, pitch a tent at the hop farm, sleep under the stars, and load up as soon as the hops were picked in the morning. The “northern” Chinook hops still have a bit of the expected grapefruit and pine, but there’s also a significant note of pineapple that they’re known for.

Cloaked in Cashmere (Hazy Double IPA, 8.0% abv) Another beer featuring hops from Top Hops. This beer debuted as a wet hop IPA in 2019. This year we upped the abv and changed the malt bill and yeast strain to make her a hazy. Cashmere is known for a balanced fruit profile, along with a bit of herbal/cannabis edge to it. The ones from M*ch*gan we’ve found to have an INTENSE fruit profile of stone fruit, overripe tropical fruit, and (especially in their fresh form) a note of cannabis.

Strata’s Here (Hazy Pale ale, 6.1% abv) Brewed with freshly picked/overnighted Strata hops from Crosby Hops in Woodburn, Oregon. Strata is a relatively new hop, but it’s a banger that brings unique tropical fruit and cannabis flavors.

7 Vandals (American IPA, 7.6% abv) Brewed with freshly picked/overnighted Idaho 7 hops from Crosby Hops in Oregon. “Pineapple Express” is what the kids would call it, pineapple and cannabis for days.

My Tasting Notes

On a Wednesday night in early October, while many in Columbus were fixated on the USA-Costa Rica World Cup Qualifying match, I ventured out to the CBC taproom to enjoy a wet hop ale/chicken wing pairing event with Ralph Wolfe and Jim Sudduth. It was an absolute treat!  Everyone’s senses are a little different so I thought it might be interesting to compare my tasting notes as another perspective on some of these beers.  The beers were half pours in tulip glasses, a delivery mode that really captured the intoxicating aromas of these aromatic beers.

The Centennial-hopped Emerald Fields was the most old-school IPA of the bunch. Compared to the others it was less fruit-forward and had a firmer bitterness. Strata’s Here greets you with a big blast of stone fruit as you lower your nose to the glass. It could easily be the most peach-forward IPA I’ve ever tasted! The hops pair beautifully with the soft mouthfeel that comes from the adjunct grains in the malt bill of this hazy IPA. It was my personal favorite. When I later learned that Strata hops were bred and developed at my alma mater, Oregon State University, it didn’t dampen my enthusiasm for this up and coming hop [2].  The Michigan-grown Chinook in West Winds hops were another head turner. They are fruit forward but not overly citrusy, tinged with a dank (cannabis) element that adds complexity.  It’s a combination that paired perfectly with the garlic-parmesan chicken wings. Cloaked in Cashmere was the final beer of the flight, and as Tony promised this one was very fruit forward, leaning toward mangos and stone fruit. Dangerously drinkable for a double IPA.

I finished out the evening with a glass of the just released 7 Vandals. I enjoyed it very much, but after 8 chicken wings and 4 beers my ability to suss out flavors wasn’t at its peak. As someone who lived in Idaho for the first quarter century of my life, I can tell you that the University of Idaho’s mascot is the Vandals, which I presume is the rationale behind the name.

Wet hop ales and chicken wings at the CBC taproom. From left-to-right Emerald Fields (Za’atar spiced wings), Strata’s Here (Jerk spiced wings), West Winds (Buffalo-Garlic-Parmesan wings), Cloaked in Cashmere (Maple Bourbon BBQ wings)

Flash Freezing extends the Season of Wet Hop Ales

This past week CBC released two more wet hop ales—Soaked in Simcoe and A is for Azacca—both of which were small batch runs that were canned and will have limited availability (at the tap room only as far as I know). This week perennial fall favorite Yakima Fresh (American IPA, 7.5%) will see the light of day and to the delight of those who don’t live on the west side of Columbus, it will see much wider distribution. All three of these beers feature hops from Wyckoff Farms in Washington’s Yakima Valley. Let’s go back to Tony’s descriptions for an idea what to expect from the last three beers of the wet hop season:

Soaked in Simcoe (Imperial Am IPA, 8.8% abv) This is our third year brewing this beer. This year’s batch was brewed with freshly picked and flash frozen Simcoe (via YCH) from Wyckoff Farms (Grandview, WA). Can’t wait for this one. Likely to be a scary drinker.

A is for Azacca (Hazy Double IPA, 8.0% abv) A hop we love and use year-round at the brewery, but this is our first year brewing with fresh Azacca. Post fermentation this thing smelled like fresh orange juice.

Yakima Fresh (American IPA, 7.5% abv). As in the past Yakima Fresh is wet hopped primarily with Mosaic hops. This is the only one of the eight beers that will see full distribution, this year in 16oz cans.

There’s a hint in Tony’s descriptions as to how CBC can be releasing new wet hop ales 5 weeks after the first varieties appeared. The hops are flash-frozen shortly after picking, much like you might do with a fruit like raspberries or peaches. While technically this is a processing step, the goal is to capture the essence of a fresh picked hop while offering breweries more flexibility in their brewing schedule (provided they have adequate freezer space). More details from YCH can be found here. I asked Tony if he could expand a bit on the process and what it means for CBC’s approach to wet hop ales.

It’s something new that Yakima Chief Hops moved to this year. They’d trialed it with a few breweries over the last year and saw some nice results, so they moved to it with all of their wet hop orders in 2021. It’s a fairly straight forward IQF (individually quick frozen) process, similar to what’s used for fruit, etc. We were really interested to see the process and turned out to be the first brewery to tour the facility at Wyckoff Farms (Grandview, WA) during one of our first days in Yakima in early September. Many of the farms grow fruit (apples, various stone fruit, wine grapes, berries, etc) in addition to hops, so it was an easy progression to this point. Essentially once the hops are picked and separated from leaf and stem, they immediately bring them over to the IQF facility and the hops are loaded onto a conveyer that moves them through the deep-freezing process. They come out the other side looking pristine and virtually identical to the way they went in. Absolutely gorgeous! The process keeps moving until they’re packed and boxed. At that point pallets are immediately moved to their freezers for storage.  

Because of this change in process, it was no longer necessary to pick hops and rush to ship them overnight, as long as they were kept frozen. They told us optimum storage is anything <14 °F. Different hops certainly have different picking windows (i.e. Simcoe is very early, Mosaic is “mid,” while something like Idaho 7 is rather late), but this freezing process allows breweries to have everything shipped at once. With the volume of hops we use to brew Yakima Fresh, you can’t exactly put those on an airplane. So they’d utilize chain driving to get the truck from Yakima to Cbus asap. But it would still take a few days to arrive, and of course we couldn’t plan to mash in until you KNEW the hops were going to be in-house. With wet hops being filled with so much water, they degrade very quickly. Multiple days in a reefer truck is do-able, but not ideal. Even the ones being overnighted are still at some level of risk. From what I’ve seen so far, this new process may not be a bad thing…..although we’ll still continue to pursue hops from multiple sources

We purchased a little extra of Simcoe and Azacca to brew with down the road. I’m not sure it’s feasible for anyone to have enough storage space to make it a year round thing, but at minimum it’s something fun to play with.

I’m going to end the story here so I can get this out before Yakima Fresh is released. As you can tell from my gushing praise I was enamored with the first wave of CBC wet hop beers and I can’t wait to try the ones just now coming out. If you haven’t tried any so far this year don’t miss out on this last wave. It sounds like Yakima Fresh will be relatively easy to track down.

I hope to come back a little later with some more thoughts on brewing wet hop beers and getting the best out of Midwest hops. I’ll share some of my own experiences making wet hop beers along with a few nuggets from pros like Tony. Look for that post in the coming weeks.

Endnotes

[1] That’s not to say there aren’t good pumpkin beers our there. In year’s past I’ve enjoyed offerings from Lineage and Wolf’s Ridge featuring freshly roasted pumpkins. I even homebrew a beer with honeynut squash from Three Creeks farm, but I go very light on the cinnamon and make things interesting by using a saison yeast and adding some fresh rosemary at flameout.

[2] Strata hops were developed through a collaboration between Indie Hops and the Aroma Hop Breeding Program at Oregon State University, where Cascade hops were bred and developed decades earlier (Go Beavers!). It’s the progeny of an open-pollinated Perle. The Indie Hops website describes its flavor profile as “passionfruit, melon, strawberry, grapefruit, rock concert cannabis, and dried chilli peppers.” Apparently, it also has good disease resistance.  It may be hyperbole to call it the next Mosaic, but I do think you’re going to start seeing a lot more of this hop in the coming years.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: