In 2009 I found myself standing in the fields at Sod-buster Farms in the Willamette Valley as machines ripped hop cones from long vines, and the air thickened with an intoxicatingly sweet scent. I was there because many of these aromatic cones—the female plant's flowers—were set to go into seasonal fresh-hop beer, an annual tradition here that showcases the flavor of this green, resinous flower. Unlike intense, hop-heavy beers brewed with the dried flower, fresh-hop beer captures the cones' delicate essence, with flavors that run from tangerine to pine, depending on the hop variety.
The volatile nature of the fresh, or "wet," hops means brewers must use the cones within 24 hours of picking, before flavors and aromas fade. That puts brewers within driving distance of hop growers in the sweet spot during the late August-September harvest.
Until the 1960s, that harvest happened by hand. These days, brewers visit farms to watch as machines strip the vines. "It's a reminder of how beer makers are attached to the soil," says Kurt Widmer of Portland's Widmer Brothers Brewing, whose crew bagged 20 pounds of citrusy Summit hops at Oregon's Gos-chie Farm one recent fall.
Fresh-hop beers are on tap at many breweries, brewpubs, and festivals throughout autumn, all over the country. Though some breweries bottle the beers, it's best to consume them right away—fresh hop flavors fade as quickly as the season.