East End Brewing's ale taps 'wet' hop freshness

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In the season that seemingly every craft brewer toasts with a malty Oktoberfest, East End Brewing Co.'s Scott Smith has cooked up a big wet kiss to hops.

Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette photos
Most people never have a chance to see fresh, whole hops like these, which were picked at Pedersen Farms in Seneca Castle, N.Y., and trucked to Pittsburgh the next morning.
Click photo for larger image.

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His Big Hop Harvest is his flagship Big Hop American Pale Ale, brewed with fresh whole hops, or "wet hops," rather than the dried and/or pelletized hops that he and other brewers typically use.

This emerging seasonal style, which aims for a fresh-cut-grassy taste tinged as green as the hops themselves, was his most popular beer last year. He likens it to "the beaujolais nouveau of beer" because it can only be brewed in late summer as the perishable hops are picked from the vines.

The 2006 Harvest is just now debuting on draft only during the Homewood brewery's "growler hours" tonight and Saturday. It's also available at Bloomfield's Brillobox, where it was first tapped Tuesday, and at other taverns around the region.

Fresh hop beer is rare, but in recent years more craft brewers are trying this new style. East End Brewing Co. showed up in a Wall Street Journal story last month that described a Wet Hop Beer Festival in San Diego and a few drafts that are available locally, including Sierra Nevada's Harvest Ale and Victory Brewing's Harvest Pilsner.

The latter, said to be the country's only fresh-hopped lager, was just made earlier this month at the brewery in Downingtown, Chester County, in part with hops from upstate New York. (Spokesman Jake Burns says the total production of just 260 kegs is a threefold increase over last year, and a few kegs are headed to Pittsburgh by late October or early November.)

Mr. Smith also bought his hops from New York, which historically was a big hop-growing region. The grower, who was headed this way, agreed to meet him along Interstate 79, and so they did the deal in the darkness of about 3:30 a.m. on Aug. 30.

The unusual brewing process that and the next day was marked not by harvest colors but the hops' brilliant green. The hops were packed in mesh vegetable bags, which Mr. Smith's volunteer assistant Jeff Bearer marked with a sign, "Fresh hops, not cabbage."

If you've never seen hops, they look a bit like little pine cones. These are the fruits (technically, the strobiles) of the hop vine (technically, a bine) Humulus lupulus. Mr. Bearer opened one up and pointed to the yellow dots -- "the good stuff," or the resinous lupulin. "Oooh, it smells good over here," he said.

These Cascade hops were not for bittering the beer (they'd added Centennial hop pellets earlier in the brewing process), but for aroma and flavor. Rather than carefully calculate amounts as he does usually, Mr. Smith "winged it" with the fresh ones.

Simply dumping 100 pounds of hops into the hot wort in the brew kettle turned into a mess, as the hops clogged the pipe to the pump. So for the second brew, Mr. Smith used his mash tun as a huge colander and pumped the hot wort through the hops in it.


Volunteer helper Jeff Bearer hoes spent grains from the mash tun at the East End Brewing Co.
Click photo for larger image.
A fresh hop cut in half. Inside are yellow dots, the resinous lupulin.
Click photo for larger image.

While the two double batches fermented, he gave patrons previews by garnishing to-go growlers of regular Big Hop with leftover hop cones.

But he scrapped a plan to add 50 more pounds of hops to the fermenters. "I'm kind of a kid in the candy store with the hops."

He'd hoped the fresh hops would have a very noticeable effect, making the beer more "alive" and "leafy." After early tastes, he said, "It's got that grassy greenness" that is "juicy, almost resinous. You can feel the slickness on the tongue."

He pronounced it a success upon kegging it Tuesday. The 60 kegs of beer -- twice as much as he brewed last year -- should be available for at least a month.

The brew was extra work, but he likes the concept. "It gets people to thinking about beer as a fresh produce item."

Details: www.eastendbrewing.com or 412-537-BEER.

You can listen and learn about Jeff Bearer's recent harvest-time visit to Anheuser-Busch's Idaho hop fields at his Internet radio show site, www.craftbeerradio.com.

Another wet-hopped brew you could try if you're willing to drive for it is Dogfish Head's Fed-Extra Mild, recently brewed at its Rehoboth Beach brew pub with fresh Centennial hops shipped overnight from the West, plus some local Cascades and some Fuggles grown at the brewpub. Mike Gerhart says he made just 4.5 barrels. It's available only at Rehoboth -- except for one firkin that will be sent to the Great American Beer Festival (www.dogfish.com).


Send beer news and ideas to Bob Batz Jr. at bbatz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1930.


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