At Hop Harvest, Colorado Craft Brewers Are All About Wet Hopping
It's a warm, late-August day on Glen Fuller's Western Colorado farm, and a whiff of something vaguely citrus wisps through the air.
It's the smell of hops. The lush vines climb 18-feet high, drooping with cone-shaped flowers, nearly neon in their greenness. Fuller is in the middle of harvest, cutting vines by the row and feeding them through a machine to remove the aromatic cones. Many of his hops will be used nearly immediately, as Front Range brewers gear up for a seasonal brew called a "wet hopped beer."
"There's a lot of people starting to brew with some fresh hops because, one, you can only do it once a year, and they do come out with some unique flavors, at least we think. And you know, fresher is better," said Fuller.
Just a few years ago, a Colorado craft brewer like Joe Schiraldi, of Longmont's Left Hand brewery, would have been hard-pressed to find a hop grown in his state.
Now, though, fields of hop vines are sprouting across Colorado, enabling breweries to produce more seasonal, wet hopped beers.
"It's roughly the same as going out to your garden in the backyard and grabbing some fresh basil and putting it in your tomato salad or whatever it is you're making," said Schiraldi, the vice president of brewing operations for Left Hand.
Left Hand has been making a wet hopped beer called the Warrior IPA since 2000. Wet hopped beers rely on fresh hops, used in the brewing process mere hours after they are picked. Schiraldi originally flew his fresh hops in from Washington State, an expensive undertaking. Now that Colorado farmers are getting in the hop game, he is able to buy his hops from a farm just a few hours away.
Fuller's Rising Sun Farms sits sandwiched in a valley between brushy foothills leading up to the West Elk Mountains, down a bumpy dirt road roughly parallel to the North Fork of the Gunnison River, outside the hamlet of Paonia, Colorado.
Fuller, a mustached man who looks like he enjoys his beer, is a pioneer in the state's fledgling hop industry. Since 2008, when he started growing with about 4 acres, he has steadily expanded, and will have 12 acres in production starting in 2015.
"We have Cascades, and Chinooks, and Willamettes, and Nuggets and Magnums," he said, naming the varieties he grows.
This is where Left Hand gets its fresh hops. The list of Colorado breweries Fuller sells to is long, ranging from small shops like Denver's Black Sky Brewing to larger craft breweries like Breckenridge, he said.
In the case of Left Hand's Warrior IPA, brewmaster Schiraldi has the first two batches of hops flown from Fuller's Paonia farm to Longmont, with more following by truck, part of a precisely timed operation.
"What we will do is we'll call the brewery and say the planes are now departing, and so they will go ahead and start the brewing process on that beer," Schiraldi said. "So we are kind of multitasking. The hops are being flown in while we are mashing in and running the beer off to the kettles."
'Fresher Is Better'
On the farm, workers feed fresh-cut vines into a 1973, German-made Wolf hop picker, separating the hops from the plant. Fuller imported that picker from Europe, because machinery for small-scale hop farms is not available in the United States.
While Fuller and other hop farmers dry some of their product, a lot of Colorado-grown hops are used fresh. This offers an opportunity for breweries to those once-a-year beers.
Steve Kurowski, of the Colorado Brewers' Guild, said interest in wet hopped (also called fresh hopped) beers is growing. The Falling Rock brewery in Denver is holding it's 9th Annual Fresh Hop festival in late September. Even though the festival has been around for a while, interest in it, and the number of breweries participating, has exploded, said Kurowski.
For good reason, he adds. Most beers are made with dried hops. Those brewed with fresh ones are unique.
"When you throw in fresh hops, it's like you're standing in the middle of a hop field when you put your nose into the glass," Kurowski said.
Hops, the flowering cone of a perennial plant that grows like a vine (although they are technically called hop bines, not vines), are used to keep beer from spoiling and add flavor. The epicenter of the hop industry has traditionally been the Pacific Northwest. That's changing, though, possibly spurred by the hop renaissance here. As of the 2012 agricultural census, there were nine farms with 110 total acres in Colorado.
"There is quite a bit of interest now and I think a lot of it is sparked by what's going on in Colorado," said Left Hand's Schiraldi. "There are people in Indiana that I've gotten emails from, Illinois, who want to grow hops -- places around the country."
Locally, new hop farms are popping up on the Front Range as well as in the Western Slope, which has a "more developed" hop industry, Schiraldi said.
"Drive around. And if you know what a hop field looks like you will see them out there."
Fuller, who also grows organic fruit and vegetables on his farm, said he loves the culture that has sprung up around using fresh hops in beers. Brewers come by the farm, select the hops they want, sometimes even run them through the picker.
"Everyone's got their hands in it. We've probably got 25, 30 breweries that are making fresh, wet hopped beers, and they are all coming up."
Fuller offers a taste of a fresh-hopped beer brewed entirely with his hops. It's Black Sky's Demonseed IPA. The beer tastes fresh, not bitter, with a hint of grapefruit.
"It's just great fun," he said, drinking the IPA. "You get to taste the fruits of your labor. And you get a check on occasion, too."