When the leaves turn orange you know the fresh hop beer in Seattle is good. But as soon as you start to see those leaves form colorful mounds on sidewalks and collect in street drains that means the season of wet hop beer is nearly over. This is the nature of fresh hop beer; it's a beer style that is as seasonal as a salmon's migration or the phases of the moon.
You just cannot order a decent tasting wet hop beer in December, which is why I headed to Holy Mountain Brewing this week when I saw what would probably be the last new wet hop beer of the year was being tapped. The Interbay brewery had just opened a keg of Valley of Kings, a fresh hop beer made with 200 pounds of wet, uncured hops from CLS farms. I wanted to get one last taste of this most peculiar style.
The high-ceilinged taproom was full of people but I found a seat at the bar and ordered a glass of Valley of Kings. It was frothy and yellow and smelled like a pungent strain of citrus cannabis. Like opening a bag of Tangerine OG. But when I drank it I found that it had a much maltier flavor than the typical fresh hop beer. That might be because Valley of Kings is a pilsner. Most fresh hop beers are made as ales, meaning they are fermented quickly and at higher temperatures. Pilsners, on the other hand, are fermented slowly and at cool temperatures. It’s fitting that one of my last fresh hop beers of the season was made with this long and slow fermentation technique, but after a lengthy fermentation some of those volatile wet hop flavors may have fallen off and diminished.
It still had a distinct fresh hop aroma but the body tasted less uniquely wet hopped, with notes of lemon drop and orange but also that dominating grainy malt profile.
The beer was still exciting, and not only because it was a fresh hop pilsner, something I've never had before. Valley Of Kings was a collaboration beer made with New York's Other Half Brewing and North Carolina's Burial Brewing. Those are two of the trendiest breweries in the country and their work on this beer shows you something about Seattle's place in the country's beer scene. We are the closest big city to Yakima Valley, the continent's largest and most important hop producing region. During the hop harvest brewers from around the world fly into Sea-Tac Airport and drive out to Central Washington to select their next hop purchases. This proximity to world-famous hops is why we have so many fresh hop beers and why I was tasting a collaboration from sought-after East Coast breweries in an industrial district of Seattle.
Not feeling fully satisfied to say goodbye to fresh hops for the year after Valley Of Kings, I ordered a glass of Wet Wired, another fresh hop beer Holy Mountain brewed in collaboration with Cloudburst. This beer won Best in Show at this year’s Yakima Fresh Hop Festival, the greatest place in the world to drink this style of beer. It smelled spicy and green and like a ripe banana. When I drank it I noticed a berry and fruity flavor, that same kind of ambiguous fruitiness mixed with cereal that you find in Fruit Loops. A leafy green note lingered in the glass the entire time I was drinking it.
That's the flavor of wet, uncured hops. Unlike essentially every other beer on earth, fresh hop beers are made with hops that are thrown into the brewing kettle within 24 hours of their harvest. That gives these beers unusual and leafy, vegetal flavors. The hops are never cured and this beer style can only be brewed during the hop harvest. Without that cure their hop flavors fade quickly, so there’s no point in holding onto a fresh hop beer. You should drink one as soon as you find it.
When I walked out of Holy Mountain it was hardly past 6 p.m. yet it was already dark. Back in September when brewers were throwing fresh hops in beer kettles the days were still long. Now in the middle of October the sun is gone before I want it to be. The long winter nights are here, and the wet hop beers are gone.