Wet Hop Beer Originated in England

Harvesting_hops_near_Independence,_Oregon

THE GREEN GREEN GRASS OF ALBION, NOT OREGON 

One meets with wet hop or green hop beers at this time of year, being beers brewed from hops fresh-picked and not dried but perhaps pelletized. A number of festivals have sprouted up, one in  – appropriately as will be seen – Kent, England, and a number in North America.

For 15-20 years I’ve read how American craft brewers created a new category of beer, one that has migrated to England and elsewhere. Americans get the laurels for wet hop beer as a commercial category. But the use of unkilned hop in beer is not an American innovation, it started in England. The truth is, if one goes back far enough, most brewing or beer notions have roots in the old country. When it comes to beer, England is everyone’s old country, not to exclude of course Germany and other important centres on the Continent.

And so England was producing green hop beers centuries ago. In 1729 Richard Bradley, in his The Riches Of A Hop-Garden Explained, wrote, “Some use hops without drying in Brewing, even green as they are gathered…”.

The rest of his remarks seem to indicate disapproval of the practice. He states only a few people consider that using “fire” to dry hops on the kiln harms their flavour, which is “fortunate”. He doesn’t say why but goes on to state if one is using green hops, use half the normal amount of dried hops.

This seems odd as today the learning is the reverse: use much more than standard measure since wet hops are not compacted and concentrated in effect by drying.  Those who didn’t like the effects of fire on the hops probably were objecting to the fumes of charcoal then used in direct heating kilns to dry hops, an understandable objection. Today, all such heating avoids bituminous fuels, but still drying effects changes to the hop vs. the taste when brewed “green”.

One wonders why Bradley didn’t like green hops in brewing. It is possible he had never tasted a beer brewed in this way, hence the lack of explanation. Perhaps he was concerned that showing too much interest in green hop beer might be seen as a threat to an established industry: artisan as it was, hop culture and processing, of which kilning was an integral part, were well-established by his time.

I had a bottle of Sierra Nevada once which used wet hops and it was very good, with a complex, layered flavour. Yet some wet hop beers seem hardly different to standard, dry-hopped beers. One does encounter occasionally a well-known, “grassy” top note in these beers, not a plus in my view. As so often with beer, it is how the hops are used and their freshness and other attributes at the time, hence matters come down finally to what’s in the glass.

 

** Note re image above: image believed in public domain, original source used is here: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/88/Harvesting_hops_near_Independence%2C_Oregon.jpg

 

3 thoughts on “Wet Hop Beer Originated in England

  1. While it may not be representative, the very first 19th century German source I looked at made no mention of undried hops, and said hops were best when they’d had a couple of years’ storage to mellow out.

  2. Interesting, thanks for this. During my years as an Oregonian (though not a native one), the wet/green-hop trend began, AFAIK originally with Sierra Nevada’s Hop Harvest amber ale on keg. It was lovely, but I also was quite enamoured of strong, caramelly keg ale back then, having not yet discovered proper cask ale.

    I’m just back home (in Franconia, Germany these days) from a week in Kent, where I was able to try some Kentish wet/green-hopped ale for the first time. And they were lovely, though honestly, I’m not sure I would’ve noticed that they were explicitly green-hopped, rather, just well-hopped. I suppose Gadd’s was the best, but it was also strong for me, at 4.8%.

    Anyway, I’d like to give Sierra Nevada the benefit of the doubt and suspect that they hit upon the idea of green-hopping after learning of the practice in Kent. Their Pale Ale was supposedly an attempt to brew a Fuller’s ESB using American malt and hops, and they were always known as having been inspired by English ale.

    Be careful, though: IIRC, SN use the term “fresh hop” for beers made with dried hops just off the field, and “wet hop” for proper green/wet hops. IIRC.

    • Thanks for this, and you are right, fresh hop is (can be) a misnomer, but I meant wet hop there.

      It’s impossible to know, unless one asks Ken Grossman I guess, what inspiration was received for its wet hop beers. It may have hit on the idea independently especially as there was until recently no known practice of modern English brewing using unkilned hops. Certainly the company deserves credit for commercializing the practice.

      I suspect green hop brewing may have antecedents in Germany too, a look at old books there might be revealing. It is easy to see why it died out until its revival: preservation and shipment of hops were impossible without drying. Only now with a restored local brewing industry in hop growing areas can the concept gain traction.

      Gary Gillman

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