Fall is a very special season for beer lovers because it's the only time when you can get a rare brew you may not have heard of: "wet" or "fresh" hop beers.
Beer, unlike wine, is made all-year round, using grain, yeast, water and hops that have been preserved. The vast majority the fall harvest's hops are dried in kilns, but some are quickly transported to breweries all around the country for the creation of beers using wet hops. Wet hops differ from dry hops in their aroma, flavor and how much bitterness they can impart. A useful analogy is the difference between fresh herbs and spices and dried ones.
"When you dry your hops, you get less of what originally is there," says Julia Herz, craft beer program director for the Brewers Association, an industry trade group.
Sierra Nevada, the nation's second-largest craft brewer, makes a wet hop beer called Northern Hemisphere Harvest. The largest craft brewers have long produced wet hop beers but increased demand for new and exotic brews is spurring expansion of these programs.
Lagunitas, the fifth-largest craft brewer in the U.S., will produce 1,000 kegs and 6,000 cases of its Born Yesterday Pale Ale, up from last year's batch of about 20 kegs, which were available exclusively in its Petaluma, Calif. tap room. This year, it will be distributed to California, Washington State, Oregon and Chicago. Next year, it will be available in even more states, according to the company's vice president of sales, Greg Merideth.
"It's strictly about a consumer wanting this style of beer and they usually can never have it unless they go to a tap room," he says.
Sierra Nevada will make about the same amount of wet hop beer this year as it did last year but is expanding its marketing due to increased consumer interest. The Northern Hemisphere Harvest is being rolled into a new product line called Harvest Series, which includes other beers made with unusual hops. The company also hosted a second annual festival open to the public celebrating such beers this year at its Chico, Calif. brewery, inviting 50 other craft brewers that make wet hop beers.
"We're trying to better showcase and build the awareness around hops," says Ryan Arnold, a spokesperson for Sierra Nevada.
The largest beer companies aren't doubling down on the trend quite yet. Miller-Coors and its parent company SAB Miller (SAB) , the second-largest brewer in the world, does not make wet hop beers and has no plans to do so.
"We don't use the wet hopping process because we always want to make sure that our hops are in good, stable condition for brewing consistency," says brewmaster Dr. David Ryder, who heads brewing at the company's U.S. brands. Another issue for companies like Miller-Coors is that if they want to launch a new beer brand, they need a large, stable supply of hops and it just doesn't exist for wet hops, Ryder says.
Like the rise of India pale ales and other beer trends over the past decade, craft brewers are leading the way.
"Wet hop beers are somewhat of the moment right now and now is the time to try them because they're made only in the fall," says Herz, of the Brewers Association.