As any beer connoisseur knows, hops provide a beer with its aroma, floral tones and bitterness. But because the flowers of Humulus lupulus are highly perishable, nearly the entire global crop is dried and compressed into pellets, which are shipped to breweries.
Inevitably, say brewers, something is lost on the journey. Farm-fresh hops — known as "wet hops" by those in the trade — produce a flavor unlike anything that comes from pellets. "They're more floral and citrusy — a totally different kind of hop," says Steve Sloan of Lawrenceville's Church Brew Works. It's similar to the difference between pungent herbs fresh from the garden and the bottle of dried herbs sitting in your cupboard.
However, for the next few weeks, Pittsburgh beer lovers can experiment with fresh hops. Church Brew Works, East End Brewery and Full Pint Brewery will all be offering their own wet-hopped beer, ready to be tapped in early September.
"It's the most ridiculous beer we brew all year," says East End's Scott Smith.
Because the volatile oils in the hops lose their flavor and aroma quickly, local brewers have to rely on nearby sources. Full Pint has made a special run of their Chinookie IPA using Chinook and Nugget hops from Wexford-based Soergel Orchards. East End and Church Brew Works, meanwhile, are using the same batch of upstate New York Cascade hops, 600 pounds of which Sloan brought back to Pittsburgh in a box truck. The hops, Sloan says, hit the brew kettle as soon as they reached the Steel City.
"They're a pain in the butt," he adds.
The wet-hopped beers can be found at their respective breweries, and East End's "Harvest" will also be available at select bars around town. (Smith recommends visiting Piper's Pub, on the South Side, where the beer will be on cask.) But, like the flavor of freshly-gathered Humulus lupulus itself, these beers won't last long.
"It's a true seasonal beer and we can only do it once," says Smith. "When it's gone, it's gone."