Almost a dozen years ago, Sierra Nevada head brewer Steve Dresler was having lunch with renowned hop expert Gerard Lemmens. He had just returned from England, where he’d been helping a brewer there figure out how to use whole, unkilned hops. Gerard asked Dresler if he’d ever considered using fresh hops.
He hadn’t, of course, but the idea marinated and a few days later he mentioned it to Ken Grossman who told him to “go for it.” The first year, Dresler made only one 100-barrel batch. In the intervening years, as demand for the beer has risen quickly, many obstacles have been overcome, such as how to ship that many hops or how to convert a recipe from regular hops (which are 8-10% water) to fresh hops (which can be as much as 80% water). Also that first year, an entire UPS truck was filled with small boxes of fresh hops bundled together with holes poked into them. Today, they’re overnighted in mesh onion sacks laid out flat in a single layer of a 18-wheel refrigerator truck. Each year, both Cascade (@2/3) and Centennial (@1/3) hops are used, but because they’re different from year to year — and because the exact quantities of each differ — the beer has to be reformulated on the fly. When it’s brewed is always a moving target because it’s contingent on when the hops are ready to be picked. Often it’s around Labor Day weekend, but you never know. Over the last eleven years, the most Harvest Ale they’ve made in a single year has been around 800-900 barrels available on draft only.
This year, however, Sierra Nevada is taking a giant leap and is planning to brew 3,000 barrels, using 16,000 pounds of fresh hops in two batches. And more exciting still, two-thirds of it will be available nationwide in 24-oz. bottles. I suspect it will sell out fast, not least of which because even though they’re making triple the usual amount, it will be sent all over the country meaning only small amounts which reach most markets. I’ve learned that the final brew was done last Thursday, September 6, and they hope to have it in the bottles as early as September 24. Keep an eye out for it, and buy it right away. But more importantly, drink it right away, too. This is the very antithesis of a beer meant to be aged. Make up your own special event to drink it. Get some fresh, locally made food and cook up a great meal. Invite your favorite people over to share it with you. This is the best way to celebrate harvest time, with the fruits of the harvest, both food and drink.