Opinion: Fresh Hop beer is the original Wet Hop beer and history proves it.
In the craft beer world the Fresh Hop vs. Wet Hop debate may be one of the most inside baseball debates ever. If you are not a pacific northwest beer nerd obsessed with style and marketing minutia then this argument probably seems pretty pedantic. That said, I have a factual and well researched historical argument for why fresh hop and wet hop beer are the same thing and should use only un-dried and fresh-picked hops.
The fresh vs wet hop debate flairs up every year around the hop harvest but because these beers are primarily only produced in Oregon and Washington it has limited relevance. Historically, fresh hops and wet hops meant the same thing: undried hops picked fresh from the bine before drying. In the last decade some brewers have begun using kiln dried hops and calling it fresh hop beer and separating wet hop beer into it’s own category for undried hops. It is important to note that all beer that is not fresh or wet hop uses kilned hops that are picked just once a year and dried for stability and for use years to come.
In Oregon, most brewers refer to these beers as fresh hop and use only undried hops. I have noticed that in Washington, many brewers prefer to call them wet hop beers. Separating the two terms makes little sense because it’s confusing to both the consumer and brewer and creates an unnecessary and undeserving sub-category. It is safe to assume most people would like to know that their “fresh” produce, meat, herbs etc. isn’t actually dried and dehydrated, there is nothing fresh about that. That would be comparable to calling dried basil out of a bulk bin “fresh” or saying a recently packaged beef jerky is fresh beef. Not to mention that there is no standard nor definition of how recently dried or kilned hops need to be in order to be used for a fresh hop beer. It’s also strange that the longest running (Est. 2012) event for these kinds of beers is in Washington and it’s called the Fresh Hop Ale Festival. So why are brewers entering their wet hop beer into a fresh hop ale festival if they are two different things. You don’t enter a pilsner into an IPA fest.
Sierra Nevada Brewing first created the fresh hop/wet hop ale in 1996 under the the name “Harvest Ale”. In 2010 Sierra Nevada rebranded their winter Celebration Ale as a fresh hop beer and in the same year began marketing the Harvest Ale as “wet hop”. Before this point the terms fresh hop and wet hop were both used to describe the seasonal style. In an interview from November 2010, then Sierra Nevada marketing manager Bill Manley outlines their case for a separation between the terms and does make a good case for their argument:
“Our Harvest Ale was really the beer that launched the wet hopped ale trend. Although some breweries use terms interchangeably, we take pride in noting the differences between wet-hops, fresh-hops and standard hops. Wet-hops being the green, un-dried hops fresh from the fields within 24 hours of picking”
No doubt Sierra Nevada did come up with the style and thus has some naming rights but let the record show that even they used the terms interchangeably only two months earlier. In September 2010 Sierra Nevada announced the renaming of Harvest Ale to Estate Homegrown Ale and their website description reads thusly [bold lettering added by The New School]:
“The cornerstone of our Harvest series is the beer that started the modern-day fresh hop ale phenomenon in America, our original Harvest Ale. Created in 1996, Harvest Ale features Cascade and Centennial hops from the Yakima Valley in Eastern Washington. These hops are harvested and shipped as “wet” un-dried hops—the same day they are picked—to our brewery in Chico where our brewers eagerly wait to get them into the brew kettle while their oils and resins are still at their peak.”
Based off of their own company description, Sierra Nevada describes the style as a “fresh hop ale” with “wet” un-dried hops. That official wording makes clear that fresh hop beer was made with only wet undried hops until a new marketing and rebranding campaign for Harvest Ale and Celebration in 2010.
The craft brewing industry trade group the Brewers Association has also supported only the fresh hop beer style name. The Brewers Association writes and updates the definitive style guides annually and to this day recognizes only a Fresh Hop Beer style. Before 2013 the official BA style guidelines called them “Fresh Hop Ale” and asserted they are “hopped exclusively with fresh and undried (“wet”) hops.” It was until 2013 that style guides did acknowledge the use of freshly dried hops in these beers but still never recognized wet hop as a separate style. The most recent 2019 Brewers Association style guidelines recognize only a “Fresh Hop Beer” category although it now notes the misleading option to use kiln dried product in a “fresh” beer.
Founder of The New School and most frequent contributor Ezra Johnson-Greenough has worked in the craft beer industry for almost 10 years, doing everything from illustrating beer labels to bartending at renowned beer bars and breweries like Belmont Station, Apex, Laurelwood and Upright Brewing. He has also had a hand in creating events like the Portland Fruit Beer Festival, Portland Beer Week, and the Brewing up Cocktails series. He is available for freelance consultation in marketing, events, graphic design and branding.