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It’s Wet Hop Season!

The end of summer means local brewers clear their schedules to make the hop-freshest beer of the year


Fresh hop cones from a recent harvest at Star B Ranch | Photo: Bruce Glassman

Friday morning, August 24. It was like one of those scenes in the movies where the starving orphans are taken in by the wealthy benefactor and, wide-eyed, are treated to their first real meal—except, in this case, the excited, wide-eyed expressions were on the faces of well-nourished adults. On the faces of San Diego brewers, to be precise.

When Eric March, general manager of Star B Ranch in Ramona, showed up at Nickel Beer Co. that morning with 30 pounds of his just-picked hops, brewers Tom Nickel, Scot Blair, and their respective brew teams got downright giddy. They reached into the bags, pulled out double handfuls, and put the small flowery cones to their faces. Deep inhale after deep inhale was followed by exclamations of—well—pure joy. “Oh, my god, smell the pine in these,” one brewer squealed. “And these over here. Awesomely dank!” another giggled. “And look at the color on these here,” another chimed in. “They’re so incredibly green!”

Brewers Tom Nickel and Scot Blair relish the fresh aromas of just-picked hops. | Photo: Bruce Glassman

It’s no secret that San Diego brewers have a unique love affair with hops, but until I saw the reactions elicited by fresh hop cones on this brew team, I didn’t fully appreciate the spellbinding power that these aromatic little buds actually have on brewers.

Once all the hops were emptied into a large flat stainless steel vessel, Scot Blair (owner of Hamilton’s and South Park Brewing) leaned over to envelop himself entirely inside the container. When he emerged, he declared that he’d like to be buried in a coffin filled with fresh hops. Hops for eternity. I’m sure that’s a dream shared by more than a few brewers in town.   

Hops are harvested by cutting the entire bine, which can grow more than 12 feet high. | Photo: Bruce Glassman

The fresh hop harvest for the Nickel/Blair wet hop collaboration had begun about three hours earlier, when Eric and his team cut swaths of the 10- to 12-foot bines (not vines) hanging neatly in rows and transported them to the ranch’s giant hop-picking machine, which separates the fragile cones from the leaves and stems.

The hop picker is a bit of an engineering marvel, partly because of its size, but also for the sheer amount of steel it takes to perform what at its essence is a remarkably delicate task. With a series of pulleys, fans, and conveyor belts, this 15-foot-high multiton contraption sends whole hop bines into a processor that pulls off the cones as well as the leaves. As the cones, leaves, and other debris roll downward into a hopper, a powerful fan sucks air inward, trapping the leaves and debris and liberating the cones to fall freely. The debris is transported to one end of the machine, while the cones are carried to another. [Amaze your beer geek friends with this hop trivia bonus fact: The mechanical hop picker was actually invented in Santa Rosa, California in the 1940s by a hop grower named Florian Dauenhauer.]

Star B's mechanical hop picking machine is a steel behemoth. | Photo: Bruce Glassman

Hop cones are very light—almost ethereal—little things, so harvesting 30 pounds takes some time; on the day I visited Star B, it took about 3 hours or so. Because it was late in August, a good deal of the hops on the ranch had already been harvested. The mission this morning was to gather a mélange of varieties that would provide alpha acids for bittering and also big hop aromas and flavors. The first batches were predominantly Yakima Gold and Columbus, but, by the time were done, we had a fragrant mix that also included Cashmere, Magnum, Nugget, Multi-Head (aka Medusa), Sterling, and Glacier. Nickel and Blair were planning to do a wet-hopped brown with this day’s harvest, and the mix of varieties (16 in all) would provide a unique and complex blend of flavors and aromas to the final product. [This brown also used 11 different malts. “Probably the most complicated beer I’ve ever done,” was Tom’s characterization.]

Hop cones collect on a grated platform before traveling on a conveyor belt to exit the machine. | Photo: Bruce Glassman

The techniques for making a wet hop beer will often veer from the conventional methods; in general, brewers use fresh hops as an excuse to play with procedures and techniques that vary from the standard. Typically, hops (in the form of pellets) are added during the boil, when the wort is heated and boiled for 60 to 90 minutes. For bitterness, hops are added at the beginning of the boil; for aroma and flavor, they’re added right at the end. Some brewers like to add fresh hops to the boil at various stages, other like to save their fresh hops for use only later in the process. Many like to create what is called a “hopback,” which is a vessel that holds hot wort as fresh hops infuse into the liquid, creating what is essentially a fresh-hop tea. Relatively low levels of acids are extracted at this temperature; it’s an approach that’s mostly about extracting big hop aroma and flavor. This is the method Tom and Scot were using for their collaboration brew.

A Multihead hop cone | Photo: Bruce Glassman

The wet hop beer Tom was overseeing this morning was one of many he had created during the previous few weeks. In fact, Tom—who is known as the “Godfather of Wet Hop Beer”—made a total of 17 this year, mostly with hops from Star B (he fills in with hops from Hopportunity Farm in Julian and various other local growers). “I love Star B because they’re ten minutes away and I can go walk through the hop field, smell them there, and decide what I’m going to brew,” Tom says. “And the coolest thing is that I can go there on a Monday, walk up and down the rows smelling them, opening them up, and Eric and I can say, ‘This hop is ready to brew.’ Cool! That means I can brew with it on Tuesday. So I literally wake up on Monday knowing I’m going to make a beer that week, but I have no idea what that beer is going to be. The hops determine it.”

The hopback holds hot wort as the fresh hop cones infuse into the liquid. | Photo: Bruce Glassman

Without a doubt, Tom has done more than any other brewer or publican to promote the San Diego hop industry. He’s a huge fan of all the hops grown locally, but he’s a particularly big fan of San Diego Chinook hops, which he says have characteristics that are very unique to this region. “It throws a lot of green peppercorn,” he says. “It’s not like the classic pine resin you get from the Pacific Northwest. To me, it’s totally latitude specific. Even though it’s genetically the same hop, it’s totally different from any Chinook I’ve ever had anywhere else.”

Tom estimates that he’s made roughly 40 or more wet hop beers with Star B over the years. Recently, he’s been taking about 1,000 pounds per season from the ranch, which is about a third of their total production. The remaining two-thirds typically go to other local breweries and one or two loyal customers in nearby counties.

The collaboration brew teams for Stay Inland Brown enjoy a well-deserved beer after putting their brew into the fermentation tank. | Photo: Bruce Glassman

Luckily, for craft beer fans, Tom Nickel not only owns Nickel Beer Co., he also own O’Brien’s Pub, which—not coincidentally—hosts the two largest wet hop beer events in San Diego each year. The one that showcases exclusively San Diego wet hop beers will be held at O’Brien’s September 13-16; most, if not all, of Tom’s wet-hopped brews should be available to attendees, including “Stay Inland Brown,” which is the South Park Brewing/Nickel Beer collaboration that came into being on that sunny Friday morning, August 24.

Follow Bruce:

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