During a recent brewery tour, our guide was going through the requisite explanation of beer’s ingredients: malts, hops, yeast and water. At hops, he grabbed a jar and said, “These are hops.” Inside, were a bunch of tiny green pellets that I always describe as looking like guinea pig food (which assumes, possibly incorrectly, that you’re more familiar with guinea pig food than hop pellets). Breweries commonly tell guests these pellets are simply “hops” without anyone batting an eye (probably because everyone on the tour is just quietly waiting for their free beer). But showing off a bunch of pellets and saying “These are hops” is akin to holding up a can of tomato paste and saying “These are tomatoes.”
Now don’t get me wrong: Just as plenty of great pasta sauces are made from tomato paste, plenty of great brewers use hop pellets. But it’s important to understand that hops don’t begin their lives as hamster food. The hops used in beer start out as the flowers of hop plants. When initially picked, these “fresh” hops have a bit of a tacky, or “wet,” feeling to them and, if brewers act quickly, they can immediately be used in brewing beer.
“Fresh Hop” or “Wet Hop” beers (though some may argue otherwise, I believe the names should be interchangeable) are made in this fashion: using hops directly off the bine (similar to a vine, but botanically different) without drying them for preservation, instead brewing with them as quickly as possible before they lose their fresh aromatics and flavors – usually within 24 hours of picking. Since most breweries aren’t situated on their own hop farm (though nowadays a few are) and the vast majority of brewers aren’t even that close to major hop growers, making Fresh Hop beers can be tricky logistically, especially for brewers outside of hop regions like the Pacific Northwest. That said, the additional delicate fresh flavors wet hops impart to a beer make the style worth the effort, leading some brewers to jump through the hoops of getting wet hops sent to them however they can.