Double Mountain's Matt Swihart on Fresh Hop Beers
When I was canvassing brewers about fresh hop beers, Double Mountain founder/brewer Matt Swihart sent me the following comments. They're so interesting and insightful I asked Matt if I could post them as a guest post and he agreed. Here it is.
Guest post by Matt Swihart
There is an amazing movement in the brew world that has been happening for the last several years. Starting with the fine folks at Sierra Nevada, brewers have been going into the hop fields at harvest, pulling freshly picked cones off the vine, and racing them to the breweries to use in the brewing process prior to the hops going into the kiln at the hop farm.
The reason for this arduous process is to grab all the fresh aroma of a freshly picked hop and losing nothing in the drying process. Let me back up a tad. Hops are grown on an 18’ string on a trellis system and when they are ready for harvest, the flowers (cones, buds, whatever you call them) are pulled into the hop picker (giant buildings with crazy rube Goldberg apparatus) to remove the cones from the vines, and then transferred directly to a drying building or kiln. At harvest, the fresh cones are rich with oils, resins, and moisture that are the heart and soul of beer, beer flavor and aroma. The Northwest IPA and West Coast pales simply do not exist without hop flavor and bitterness. Unfortunately the high moisture and oil content at harvest also starts to break down and physically compost once the vine is cut. The kilns bring the moisture of the cones from somewhere in the 80% range down to 9%. The drag is with the drying process some very interesting aroma and flavor compounds are lost, hence the goal of using the hops prior to kilning. The competing goals of maximizing fresh hop aroma without introducing the vegetative, composting breakdown of high moisture hops begin at harvest.
When making our fresh hop beers (Killer Green with Brewers’ Gold, and Killer Red with Perle), we try to minimize the time from picking until the brew kettle. Over the last several years, I’ve seen the composting oily fraction of wet, undried hops happen right in front of my eyes. It is imperative to loosely pack your undried hops and get them into a kettle within hours of harvest. In Hood River, we are about 90 minutes from Sodbuster farms, so we send our truck about the same time as mash-in. The hops arrive back at the brewery typically minutes from use in the first brew. If we are making multiple brews, we refrigerate the hops as soon as possible, or make multiple trips to the farm. I recall a few years of trying to be more efficient, pack more hops into a truck and store them cold prior to usage. Hops with higher oil content have started to heat up as soon as a couple hours after picking. On a Brewers’ Gold run a year back, the hops turned orange and heated almost hot to the touch deep inside the hop bins and you could visually see the oil and moisture being driven off the hops, even though they were in a cooler at 33F.
I think it is those situations where the stinky, vegetative, musty aromas pop up in some wet hop beers. From my perspective, you simply can’t use non-dried hops more than 12-24 hours after picking, unless you can spread them out in a cooler, and keep ‘em cold.
In the brewing process, we use the wet hops in a couple of locations. We still use pellets in the kettle for bitterness, but add a nylon bag (dry hop bag) stuffed with fresh hops late in the boil for flavor. Where the Killer beers get most of their character is when we add the largest charge of wet hops to our hop back. This maximizes the flavor/fresh hop aroma into the wort with minimal chance of picking up bitterness. It allows us to use 4-5 lbs of hop/bbl and get the flavor we want.
We’ve then dry-hopped with traditional hops and/or also dry hopped with wet hops on various years. Ifound the most pleasing Killer Beers to have a little of both. With that method, you can have the best of both worlds, using various forms of hops (pellets, wet hops, dried cones) to make the best beer possible. For the killer green and red, our usage is roughly 4 lbs/bbl wet hop and about 0.5 – 1 lb/bbl traditional hop.
The process changes a bit every year as we experiment with how to keep that great field aroma of the hop into the glass. There is no nobler endeavor.
Matt Swihart has been brewing since 1994. Before founding Double Mountain Brewery with Charlie Devereux in 2007, he brewed at Full Sail, ultimately becoming assistant brewmaster there.