(Santa Rosa, CA) – Hops are small flowers grown on vines used in beer for flavoring, bittering and aroma. Most hops are dried and pelletized for storage and practical use throughout the year. Wet hop beers are brewed with hops picked and brewed with fresh, from the hopyard to the brewhouse within hours. It is logistically difficult for breweries outside of the hop growing regions of Eastern Washington, Oregon and Idaho to get wet hops. In Northern California a group of small scale hop farms has formed to grow and provide wet hops to local breweries. The NorCal Hop Growers Alliance is a non-profit group that formed to help small scale hop farmers.
Santa Rosa, CA was once one of the largest hop growing regions in the nation, but after prohibition the industry shifted to Yakima Washington because of mechanization, disease pressure, and geographical advantages. Many old timers recall the hop fields and hop kilns. Paul Hawley, owner and brewer for Fogbelt Brewing Co., notes that his grandmother still talks about picking hops along the Russian River as girl. Paul planted a quarter acre of hops on his family’s vineyard in Healdsburg four years ago, just before opening his brewery. Sebastopol native, Mike Stevenson, planted his own quarter acre, since then expanded, not long after and put up a website for his Warm Spring Wind Hop Farm. The two started meeting, over beers, to trade tips on growing hops in Sonoma County. They started getting calls and emails from others interested in or already growing hops and before long the group was over a dozen.
In 2016, the NorCal Hop Growers Alliance formed as a non-profit and purchased a hop picking machine to be shared by the members. “Hand picking hops is very labor intensive and even on a small scale you run out of friends willing to help you pick” remarks Mike Stevenson, president of the Alliance. The hop picking machine was originally invented in Santa Rosa and the one the group uses is sized for one to five acres. This year the group hopes harvest 3 acres worth of hops across six different hopyards. The membership consists of 20 growers, 15 breweries and cider makers, and 10 home brewers.
“Brewing with wet hops is a lot more like winemaking, you work directly with the farmer and have to be flexible with logistic. They are my favorite beers to make and to drink”, exclaims Paul Hawley of Fogbelt Brewing Co. This season Fogbelt has already brewed a wet hop fest lager with hops from Redwood Hill Farm in Sebastopol. Paul, along with his business partner and brewer Remy Martin, plans to brew six wet hop beers this season from local hop farmers. They will be releasing them at an annual event on Sunday September 3rd. The Wet Hop Festival will be taking over their parking lot with bands, beer garden, outdoor bar, bbq, and even collaborating with the cigar shop next door on pairings.
Wet hop beers have a distinctively different hop profile. They can be grassier and have more intense fruit aromas. Many brewers equate brewing with wet hops to cooking with fresh herbs rather than dried. “Hop oils are volatile and aroma can be lost during the drying and pelletizing process” explains Mike Stevenson.
This coverage is made possible in part thanks to the generous support of Visit California, which flew us out to Northern California to tour one dozen breweries across San Francisco, Sacramento, Berkeley, Oakland and Sonoma. For more information on California’s craft beer boom, visit here.