US. Craft brewers turn to local ‘wet hops’ for special beers

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Lakefront Brewery, Sprecher Brewing, Central Waters Brewing, Bull Falls Brewery and South Shore Brewery have joined forces to market a limited run of beers using freshly harvested “wet hops” grown in Wisconsin.

Sure, it involved 90 minutes of continually tossing handfuls of hops into a brewing kettle.

But the finished beer’s more flavorful taste from using hops just picked fresh from the vine made the extra work worthwhile, said Paul Graham, a co-owner at Central Waters Brewing Co.

“These days, hoppy beers, bitter beers, are pretty popular,” Graham said. “While it might be an acquired taste, a lot of people have acquired it.”

Central Waters, in Amherst, recently joined forces with four other Wisconsin craft brewers, including Milwaukee’s Lakefront Brewery Inc. and Glendale-based Sprecher Brewing Co., to create a limited run of beers using so-called “wet hops” grown in the Badger State.

Those are hops that are harvested and then promptly used, sometimes within hours, in the brewing process.

The majority of hops used to brew beer are “dry hops,” which are harvested in the Pacific Northwest, quickly dried and then typically converted into pellets, which allows for much cheaper shipping costs and much longer storage times.

Using wet hops is something you’re more likely see demonstrated in a pioneer village exhibit.

The advantage of using wet hops is that it produces a fresher, more authentic taste, said Jon Reynolds, managing director of the Midwest Hops and Barley Co-op, a growers organization based in Onalaska.

“People always ask, ‘What was beer like 100 years ago?’ ” said Russ Klisch, Lakefront Brewery owner. “Well, that’s probably what it was like.”

Sprecher’s wet hops beer is a version of its flagship Special Amber brand, with the hops providing flavor notes reminiscent of green bananas, said Jeff Hamilton, Sprecher president.

“The people who are really into craft beer are snapping it up,” he said.

A targeted market

There’s a marketing advantage by aiming the beers at people who are willing to pay premiums for locally made foods and beverages.

“You are growing (the hops) in local farms, and you are delivering them to a craft brewer, which is local,” Rey nolds said.

This month, the co-op and the five Wisconsin brewers began marketing the wet-hops beers with a focus on their locally grown ingredients.

Each beer’s label includes a reference to the four other wet hops beers and lists the hops growers: Stettin-Wokatsch Hop Farm, Wausau; Marathon County-Krautkramer Hop Farm, Marathon City; Trzeb’s Back 40 Hop Farm, Amherst; and Fine Bine Hop Farm, Rosholt.

The hops are a second crop for some of the farmers, or a way to supplement their income from their day jobs.

Ryan Trzebiatowski, of Trzeb’s Back 40 Hop Farm, works as an engineer at Greenheck Fan Corp. in Schofield and has been growing hops since 2009 “as another thing to do.”

“We just keep adding a little bit to it every year,” he said.

The brewers, and their wet hops beers, are: Central Waters Brewing, Wisconsin Harvest Wet Hop Ale; Lakefront Brewery, Local Acre Wisconsin Wet Hop Lager; Sprecher Brewery, Hopfuzion Wisconsin Fresh Hop Lager; Bull Falls Brewery, Wausau, Wisconsin Hop Worthy Amber Ale; and South Shore Brewery, Ashland, Wisconsin Bitter Blonde Wet Hopped Ale.

The beers, which are available at all five Trig’s supermarkets in central and northern Wisconsin, plus Discount Liquor and Ray’s Wine and Spirits in the Milwaukee area, have been big sellers.

“It’s got quite a following,” said T.J. Tucker, general manager at Ray’s, 8930 W. North Ave., Wauwatosa. “Hops are always the craze.”

At Discount Liquor, a 22-ounce bottle of the Wisconsin wet hops beer is priced at $4.99 and $5.99, depending on the specific brand.

From farm to kettle

Other brewers make wet hops beers, including Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.’s Northern Hemisphere Harvest Ale. Closer to home, wet hops beers include Wet, from Surly Brewing Co., based in the Minneapolis area.

But both of those beers use hops harvested in Washington, where most domestic hops are grown, and then quickly shipped to the breweries. The Wisconsin brewers use hops from farms that are located in the same state, at most maybe two to three hours away.

Central Waters used wet hops from all four co-op growers, with those farms all within about a 45-minute drive from the brewery. Graham figures there’s about a 12-hour window to use the hops once they’re picked.

The pale ale brewed by Central Waters with wet hops features a concentrated flavor, rather than one balanced with the beer’s malt flavor, Graham said.

Central Waters brewed 300 cases of Wisconsin Harvest Wet Hop Ale. That’s a small amount for a brewery that typically sells 3,000 cases of beer each week.

But the main reason for the small amount is the lack of locally grown wet hops, Graham said. He and other brewers hope the Wisconsin growers will increase their production.

As for the brewing process, Graham laughed when asked if it was “fun.” He was the guy who continually dropped the fresh hops into the brewing kettle over 90 minutes.

” ‘Fun’ is an interesting word to use,” Graham said. “It’s fun because it adds a little variety to a normal production day. But it’s very difficult to do.”

Graham also said there was no hesitation in marketing the five beers in a joint effort.

“The majority of craft brewers operate on the notion that a rising tide lifts all boats,” Graham said. “While we might be competing for the same (store) shelf space, we really are trying to raise the profile for the entire craft beer industry.”