TINY emerald cones on 18-foot-tall hops plants trembled as workers whipped the freshly cut stalks into roaring machines here at Sodbuster Farms. Gnashing metal fingers then stripped off the sticky cones — female flowers of the Humulus lupulus — and poured them onto conveyor belts, setting afloat bits of hops, like ash from a fire.
Lisa Bauso for The New York Times
Lisa Bauso for The New York Times
The debris, flecked with a resinous, yellow powder called lupulin, stuck in workers’ hair and eyelashes. Even more persistent was the aroma: a lemony, leafy, earthy scent that is precisely what brewers try to harness when brewing fresh-hop beers in autumn.
Hops give beer its distinctive bitterness and lend it other lively notes that range from citrus to flowers. But brewers usually use dried processed pellets of hops. The fall hops harvest is their brief window of opportunity to brew with the fresh green cones to make beers with a subtle range of hops flavor.
“You really get to taste the whole hop,” said Alan Jestice, an owner of the Blind Tiger Ale House in Greenwich Village, which serves fresh-hop beer on draft from Sierra Nevada and Two Brothers Brewing Company in Illinois. He said he enjoys their bright, herbal quality.
Standard high-hop styles, such as India pale ales, which can be quite bitter, don’t usually work with fresh hops, said John Harris, the brewmaster at Full Sail Brewing Company’s brewery in Portland, Ore.
“In order to taste and feel the hops, you have to put them in the right kind of beer,” he said. “If the beer gets too bitter, you start losing the nuances of the fresh hops.”
Mr. Harris sipped a glass of his 2009 Lupulin Fresh Hop Ale that was brewed using fresh Crystal hops, a variety with less assertive flavors.
“It’s kind of like a white wine to me, with its light fruity nose and effervescence,” he said.
Timing is crucial for these brews. Once the hops are harvested in late August or early September, they must be added to the beer within 24 hours of being picked. Brewers must use five to seven times more fresh hops than dried because drying concentrates flavors.
Fresh hops must be harvested within a few hours’ drive of where they will be used in a brew, as they’re delicate and don’t freeze or ship well.
In Oregon and Washington, hop farmers call brewers hours before a harvest, when plants (called bines — vines without tendrils) have reached perfect ripeness. Brewers will drop everything when they get the call. Newborn baby at home? Too bad. Fresh hops require even more coddling.
Personally making the pick up has become a ritual for brewers who like to be reminded of beer’s agricultural roots.
“Brewers are like normal civilians: we think chickens come from the grocery store and hops come in pellets from Yakima,” said Jack Joyce, an owner of Rogue Ales in Newport, Ore., which released the Chatoe Rogue Wet Hop Ale on Oct. 1. “It’s an eye-opening experience.”
Once the brewing ends, the beer ferments for two to four weeks, which makes October the prime time for drinking them. Fresh-hop beer should be consumed within three months, and the sooner the better; the essence of fresh hops fades more quickly than that of dried hops.
The hops shortage of the last few years has given brewers a greater appreciation for the ingredient. Last year, Rogue planted 22 acres of hops and added another 22 acres this year.
“Growing our own hops wasn’t to save money,” Mr. Joyce said, “but to make sure aroma hops were available to us and our ilk.”
But owning a hop yard also ensures that a brewer can have fresh-hop beer.
Sierra Nevada Brewing Company planted nine acres of hops next to its brewery in Chico, Calif., and uses fresh Cascade and Centennial hops from the yard for its Chico Estate Harvest Ale. It calls the beer a “wet hop” ale, while its two types of “fresh hop” beer are made with hops picked and dried the week before brewing. One of them is Southern Hemisphere Harvest Ale, with hops flown to Chico from New Zealand in the spring.
Steve Dresler, the brewmaster at Sierra Nevada, said that his brewery made the first fresh-hop beer in the United States, 13 years ago. He said he got the idea from an English hops merchant, who said cottage breweries made fresh-hop beer in small batches during the harvest season.
“It’s something that was done on a limited basis in Europe before we did it in the States,” Mr. Dresler said.
In the Northeast, brewers are finding fresh hops on a smaller scale, in home gardens and on farms.
Phil Markowski, the brewmaster at Southampton Publick House in Southampton, N.Y., helped handpick 10 pounds of fresh hops from a Long Island nursery specializing in hydrangeas. The harvest was smaller than expected because of the rainy, cool summer.
“We saw how the season can really affect our ingredients,” Mr. Markowski said. “Very few brewers have learned that lesson firsthand, even though it’s routine for winemakers.”
The demand for fresh-hop beer could help teach more brewers about the crop, said Rick Pedersen, who owns Pedersen Farms in Seneca Castle, N.Y., with his wife, Laura. In addition to growing vegetables, Mr. Pedersen tends 10 acres of hops. This year, he sold fresh hops to the Ithaca Beer Company, Harpoon Brewery and Victory Brewing Company, all of which made batches of fresh-hop beer available at their breweries.
“These beers won’t hold up,” Mr. Markowski said. “They’re brewed for the moment. It’s like fresh local tomatoes and corn, an old-fashioned way to remember traditional seasons.”
From the Farm to the Barstool
Places in New York City that serve fresh-hop beer:
The Blind Tiger, 281 Bleecker Street (Jones Street), Greenwich Village, (212) 462-4682.
Jimmy’s No. 43, 43 East Seventh Street (Second Avenue), East Village, (212) 982-3006.
d.b.a., 41 First Avenue (Second Street), (212) 475-5097.
The Pony Bar, 637 10th Avenue (45th Street), Hell’s Kitchen, (212) 586-2707.
Rattle N Hum, 14 East 33rd Street, (212) 481-1586.