THE BREWHOLDER: Cheers to harvest ales — the true taste of Autumn

Share Button

For Digital First Media

When it comes to beer flavors of the Fall, typically most people think of pumpkin beer. But the Autumn is also the time to harvest hops — and brew harvest ales. You may have seen some of these seasonal beers on tap and wondered, “What is a harvest ale?” Put simply, they are a celebration of the hop harvest and a wonderful treat for “hopheads” for a very limited time each year.
Hops, or Humulus lupulus, is one of the four main ingredients of beer. As Michael Jackson wrote in his World Guide to Beer, “Beer brewed only with grain tastes thick and sticky. For centuries, man has used a variety of plants, herbs and spices to season his beer, to help clarify it, and to preserve it.” About 1,000 years ago, hops, a climbing, vine-like plant in the nettle family that produces hop cones, was introduced to beer. Inside the hop cones a waxy substance called lupulin is formed, which provides the alpha and beta acids and aromatic oils that provide the extremely sought after flavors in U.S. beer today. Many different varieties of hops have been (and continue to be) developed by modifying the amount of the acids and oils in the cones; the different ratios in each variety result in different flavor profiles — from citrus to pine, floral to tropical fruit.

Victory Brewing's "Vine Victory Harvest Ale."  Photo by Matt Brasch

Victory Brewing’s “Vine Victory Harvest Ale.” Photo by Matt Brasch

In the U.S., hops is primarily grown commercially in the Northwest, specifically the Yakima Valley of Washington state, although other areas are beginning to try their hand at growing them as well. Hops begin their growing season in May and their “bines” (technically not vines), which can grow up to 25 feet tall, are harvested in late August to early September. When you think of a harvest, you may have visions of farmers in a field manually pulling hop cones off the plants. But the hop harvest in the Yakima Valley, which according to USAhops.org produces 77 percent of the U.S. hop crop, necessarily is modernized. There are several videos on YouTube that show each step of the harvest; just search for “hop harvest in Yakima Valley” and you will get a true appreciation for the process.
Once the hops are harvested, dried and packaged, they are ready for brewing. Over the years, craft brewers have become passionate about making a harvest ale with the freshest hops possible. In fact, some hop farms now allow brewers to come to the farm prior to harvest, pick out the specific bines they want, and will ship them overnight to the brewer immediately after they are harvested, ensuring the freshness of the hops. So the hops goes into the harvest ale almost as soon as it is picked in September, making the beer ready for consumption in October.

In addition to obtaining hops from the Yakima Valley, some brewers are going “local” by using hops grown close to their breweries. North Penn’s own Prism Brewery recently released their annual harvest ale “Green Street.” According to Rob DeMaria, brewer and owner of Prism, he did not originally plan to brew a harvest ale. Rather, 4 years ago Rob was approached by his friend who had planted hops for fun — not to brew — and had a bumper crop. When Rob asked “How much did you grow?” he was invited to a hop picking party. At the party he realized that there was enough for a 10-barrel batch and said, “Just for the fun of it, we’ll brew a harvest ale; we’ve never done anything like that.”

A locally grown hop cone ready for harvesting in the late summer sun.  Photo by Matt Brasch

A locally grown hop cone ready for harvesting in the late summer sun. Photo by Matt Brasch

True to the freshness characteristic of a harvest ale, this year the Green Street hops were picked on a Sunday and were brewed into the beer on Monday; and because the hops plants have matured, the harvest was doubled this year — which means that the amount of hops in Green Street was doubled. In case you are wondering where the name “Green Street” came from, it’s where the hops are grown — but Rob would not divulge the name of the exact town because he wants to makes sure he has even more hops next year!
Another brewer that is using local hops in a harvest ale is Philadelphia Brewing Company, located in the Kensington section of Philadelphia. “Harvest from the Hood,” is a harvest ale which uses only hops grown within city limits; from Greensgrow Farms and other locations. According to Philadelphia Brewing co-founder and brewer Bill Barton, Harvest from the Hood was first brewed in 2010 to celebrate not only hops, but also Greensgrow Farms, “a garden oasis” in Philadelphia. The hops in Harvest from the Hood is a mix of hop varieties including Mt. Hood, Liberty, Willamette, and “a lot of Cascade.” Bill strongly recommends that if you see a harvest ale, try it while it’s here — “It’s a special release — something to look forward to each year; like your first fresh tomato of the summer. Enjoy it while you can!”
So the next time you are at a bar and you see a harvest ale wedged between two pumpkin ale taps, make sure you give it a try. Unlike pumpkin beer that can show up in June, July or August, a well-crafted harvest ale will only appear after the hops are harvested and the beer is brewed. Follow the advice from Victory Brewing Company’s “Vine Victory Harvest Ale” – “Drink Now. Do Not Store”!

Columnist Matt Brasch is a Souderton Area High School graduate and a beer enthusiast. For more, check his blog at http://thebrewholder.com.

Share Button