Brewers converge on The Hop Yard in late August and early September to pick up fresh, whole-cone hops for their annual “wet hop” beers. Terry Peterson, the sales manager for the Gorham-based hop farm, calls it a “yearly pilgrimage.”

Over 50 breweries from five states make wet-hop beers with Hop Yard hops, so it’s a logistical challenge – one coordinated by Peterson. But it’s also a joyous occasion.

Brewers walk the farm, pet its resident goats, talk to the farmers, take photos and rub some hops still on the bine. (Like vines, “bines” climb vertically, but they do so by wrapping their stems around support structures, rather than using tendrils.)

The brewers leave with bags of oily and pungent hops literally straight off the bine, racing back to their breweries to get them into their beers as quickly as possible: After picking, hops deteriorate rapidly, losing their magical qualities within 24 hours.

Most beers are made with hops that, once picked, are quickly kiln dried, ground up, pressed into pellets and vacuum-packed, at which point they can be refrigerated until the beer is made. A “wet hop” beer (also sometimes called “harvest” or “fresh-hop”) is brewed with these delicate whole-leaf hops whose stars burn bright, but short.

Mast Landing’s Lola is named for a goat who lives at The Hop Yard. Photo by Parker Olen/Mast Landing Brewing

Weston Shepherd, the production manager at Mast Landing Brewing Co., compares them to “fresh cut flowers.” For Lola, a 7.7% IPA named after one of The Hop Yard’s goats, the brewers were able to get the fresh hops into their beer within an hour, given the Westbrook brewery’s proximity to the farm. The payoff is a truly unique beer in flavor and aroma. Shepherd notes that many interpret wet hop beers as tasting “green”; he picks up aromas of “freshly mown grass, pine resin, cut flowers, citrus pith and even a little marijuana” in Lola. The Cascade hops add piney and citrusy notes typical of the variety. But The Hop Yard’s Peterson distinguishes the Cascade grown there from those raised in the Pacific Northwest.

“It’s almost a whole new hop,” he said, with its uniquely sweet, candied orange qualities.

Shepherd is motivated to brew fresh-hop beers for a number of reasons. First, they are unique – “immediately recognizable and distinct in flavor” – in a marketplace jam-packed with hoppy IPAs. He also views it as an educational experience, as he and his colleagues get to talk to the farmers directly and “learn a little more about the growing, harvesting and processing of one of our most important ingredients.”

Jake Austin, of Austin Street Brewery, also views the annual trip to the farm as “informative.” Austin Street’s Narrative 7, a 5% pale ale, features Comet hops that they encountered on their visit last year. Citrus peel and grapefruit combine with earthy and peppery notes in a very drinkable beer with a dry finish.

Austin Street’s Narrative 7, a 5% pale ale, features Comet hops from The Hop Yard in Gorham. Photo courtesy of Austin Street Brewery

But a visit to the farm is about more than just the beer. There is a certain authenticity that comes with this ephemeral, seasonal connection to the hop harvest.

“There are few things left that are truly seasonal,” Shepherd said. “Fiddleheads in spring and heirloom tomatoes in summertime come to mind. I really like that each year there is a tiny window where we can work with fresh hops. Their scarcity and seasonality makes me appreciate these beers more each year.”

Asa Marsh-Sachs of Orono Brewing echoed those sentiments. “So many beers feel seasonal,” he said, “but you can source the ingredients year round and really brew them anytime. But not wet hops!” He enjoys the sense of “connection of driving down to the farm to watch them be cut down, fed through the picker and bagged up for us. Always a special experience.”

Orono’s Maine Farmer Wet Hop IPA (6.4%) combines Cascade and Comet from The Hop Yard. Candied fruit abounds – with peach, citrus and strawberry – as well as lovely floral bouquet, with a nice, full mouthfeel.

There are a good many other wet-hop beers, powered by The Hop Yard harvest, on shelves this week – including the likes of Bunker Brewing’s Green Mind, which is brewed with Cascade and Nugget, and Sebago Brewing’s Local Harvest Ale. Needless to say, get them while they’re fresh. As with most IPAs, drinking them within a month of their release is ideal, but the sooner the better for wet-hop styles.

In the meantime, The Hop Yard will be transitioning into winter. The harvest is the high point of the year for hop farmers, and now that it’s done, they shift to clean-up and winterization – tidying up the hop rows, pulling irrigation and doing maintenance on tractors and “Helga” – a quinquagenarian hop-picker that the farm brought over from a few years ago from Tettnang, a German hop-growing region near the Swiss border.

Come spring, Hamblen Farm, home to The Hop Yard, will reawaken, as it has for as long as the Hamblens have farmed this land – eight generations’ worth, going back to 1783. The poles will be straightened and twine will be strung to their tops, nearly 20 feet high, to prepare for the ascendance of the hop bines. Come summer, they will twist their way up, sometimes growing at the rate of a foot per day. And in late August, the brewers will make their pilgrimage again, bags in hand, to fill with freshly cut hops before racing back to the brewhouse with these little meteors – Cascade, Nugget, Triumph and Comet – in tow.

Ben Lisle is an assistant professor of American Studies at Colby College. He lives among the breweries in Portland’s East Bayside, where he writes about cultural history, urban geography, and craft beer culture. Reach him on Twitter at @bdlisle.


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