Wet Hop Beers All Year Long? A Scientist May Have Discovered a Way
"Wet hop" beers are one of the craft brewing world's best styles—though many people have never tried one or even heard of them. "Wet-hopped" means that the hops are picked and then immediately used in brewing before they're dried out or otherwise processed for longer storage. The resulting beers have a delightful flavor featuring the hop cone's freshest notes. The problem is that hops are only harvested once a year, and even then, most breweries aren't close enough to a hop farm to realistically whip up a wet hop batch.
However, new research from Bill Bauerle—a plant stress physiology expert and professor in the Department of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture at Colorado State University (CSU)—may change all of that. Growing hops hydroponically indoors using LED lights, Bauerle says he has been able to harvest four hop cycles in a single year—and since the environment is entirely controlled, similar indoor facilities could potentially be set up anywhere—not just in traditional hop growing regions like Washington State or New Zealand. The result could mean a much more constant stream of fresh hops in previously uncharted areas.
"We fooled our hops into thinking it was the middle of summer in British Columbia, or somewhere else with an appropriate day length," Bauerle said in an announcement put out by CSU, "so we could grow them all year round."
But his research was about more than simply "fooling" hops. Beyond playing with controlled "weather" and lighting conditions, Bauerle also uncovered a significant misunderstanding about hops. Previously, the belief was that hop bines only flowered once a year and needed a "vernalization" period: basically, downtime where the plant could regroup before flowering again. But even though hops naturally go dormant in the winter, when Bauerle eliminated "winter," he was able to get the hops to flower repeatedly.
Amazingly, despite hops being cultivated for over 1,000 years, Bauerle told me via email that that it appears we "really did not know" that hops could be grown this way until his research. He points to a 2017 article where even the CEO of a hop company believed the rhizomes need a dormancy period. "In addition, floriculture professors that I know have confirmed that they thought hops needed vernalization. When I told them that they did not, they were very surprised," he said.
So why'd it take so long to figure this out? Bauerle explains that getting hops to grow indoors isn't as easy as it may sound. "The problem with hops is that if you don't let them get big enough, they won't flower," he stated. "Up until ten years ago, we didn't have the technology as far as the LED lights and controlling the photoperiods like we do. Because people couldn't get the plants to develop like they would outside, they assumed the lower flowering was because they lacked the vernalization period."
But thanks to modern technology and Bauerle's three years of research—which was recently covered in his paper published in the journal Scientific Reports—"global production and speed breeding" may be the future of the hop industry. "I do think that wet hop beers could be available all year as a style that the brewery offered in addition to its other styles," he told me. "I know that there are folks that really enjoy wet hop beers and make it a point to seek them out when they are available."
But Bauerle also believes it could be some time before this kind of technology spreads: "I think it will depend on the price point of wet hops, and if brewers are willing to pay the premium that wet hops normally sell for during the fall field harvest. Coordination between the growing operation and the brewery that uses the hops will be key too because wet hops need to be used within 48 hours of harvest so that they do not oxidize too much."
Still, both brewers and beer lovers are always on the lookout for the next emerging trend—and are often willing to spend more money to get it. And the novelty of the previously seasonal wet hop style being available year-round certainly might get people excited. So could wet hop beers become the next New England IPA? Only time will tell.