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Unrated — Almost Pure Michigan

Harvest, fresh hop, wet hop: the evolution of America’s brewing vocabulary inches ever closer to the agriculture it springs from, as brewers look to the freshness and quality of ingredients as one of their most strategic—not to mention marketable—assets. It’s perhaps an unsurprising result given that these brewers are battling for consumer attention amidst 6,000 competitors, some of which have a heavy hand on the scales that weigh out our hops and grain.

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Meanwhile, with increasing anticipation, drinkers are mapping their gustatory desires to the cycles of the earth—just like they’ve done for millennia alongside the harvesting and pressing of grapes, or the digging up of roots and herbs. Or, in the case of beer, with the late-in-the-year brewing of Saison after sickles run through a field of barley.

The wet hop ale is a distinctly American obsession, starting as so many American beer obsessions do, with an inquisitive Sierra Nevada brewer. Since then, it’s moved along a spectrum of many hoppy obsessions—fresher, wetter, bigger, bolder. And, in this case, closer. 

Founders Brewing Company’s Harvest Ale is a beer whose story syncs with the country’s larger interests. While it claims to be 100% Michigan wet hops for the first time with its 2017 release, that hasn’t always been the case. Or even the intent. But along the way, locality became both a goal and a problem-solver.

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“The Michigan hop industry has been growing,” says Founders head brewer, Jeremy Kosmicki. “There are quite a few farms now, quite a few acres, and the quality has gotten to the point where we’re pretty comfortable using them, at least on the wet-hopped side. The availability, the price is getting better, the quality has gone up. It just makes sense. It costs so much to get the wet hops overnight from Yakima, where here, they can pick them and drive them to me that same morning. And we can get them in the brew right away.”

Going back to Kosmicki’s start on the Founders’ brewing team in 2005 (he was on packaging since 2000), “wet” wasn’t event the goal—freshness was. “We actually did Harvest Ale for the taproom while the previous brewer was still here, but that was a fresh hop beer,” he explains. “Meaning: it was whole cones that had just been harvested, but dried.”

One of those brewers at the time of the transition was Nate Walser (now the founder of Greyline Brewing Co. in Grand Rapids), who brewed Harvest Ale from 2003-2005. He recalls the earliest days of the switch from fresh, dried hops to wet.

“I brewed the first several years of Harvest Ale with dry hops," Walser says. "Around 2005, we switched to wet hops, and that’s when the issues started. When those first batches of wet hops came in, we dumped a couple into bags and threw them into the beer, and eventually you could reach your hand down into the middle of the box and it would be hot—hotter than a hot tub, 123-130 degrees. And the stuff right in the center would be rotted, composted from that heat.”

Now, as the founder and brewer at Greyline, Walser sticks with the fresh, fresh hops in his own beer.

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Over the course of the next 10 years, the beer—and the brewing team’s thinking—would be influenced by a number of factors—some personal, some procedural, and a lot of just straight up trial and error. But the first shot at a “wet hop” beer was inspired by a representative from a brewing supply group. “He suggested we try doing a wet hop beer,” Kosmicki remembers. “I didn’t know what he was talking about. We gave it a shot and were pretty impressed with the range of flavors we got. It was just so different from using a dried product.”

That impression would be challenged consistently throughout the life of the beer’s design. 

As the season for hop growing has shifted from year to year and place to place, down to a particular day and farm, the sequence from harvesting to bailing to delivery has, in turn, had to happen in 12-24 hours—sometimes at a moment’s notice.

“When we were trying to do an Amarillo beer,” Kosmicki recalls, “it came down to when they were going to be harvested, and that would change by the day. It really took a lot of fluid schedules. You can’t base your schedule around those things. It was always an issue. The price to ship refrigerated, overnight wet hops was astronomical.”

At the time, Founders was operating on a 30-barrel system, and producing less than 10,000 BBLs of beer in a year (compared to the nearly 350,000 they made in 2016). So the cost of producing the beer, including overnight shipping and staffing for an impromptu turn, was rough. Even after upgrading to their 80-BBL system, it was still frustrating.

I still hate it when I find a four-pack of that stuff on the shelves in November. It should be gone. People need to drink it fresher.
— Jeremy Kosmicki

“I had to devote that brewhouse and our crew pretty much to brewing on the little brewhouse all week long,” Kosmicki says. “Which means I didn’t have a crew to run the big brewhouses. Which means we are losing out on a lot of volume.”

As expensive as that shipping was, it was critical to the condition of the hops that would show up on the dock. In a box of decaying vegetal matter, the center of that pile can start to create an immense amount of heat that becomes volatile, which is why hops are immediately kilned and sent to cold storage in typical processing scenarios.

“I think at about 24 hours you are starting to see some degradation,” Kosmicki admits. “A little bit of browning. If they are packed tight and can’t breathe, they are going to start to get warm.  Maybe a little mucky down in the middle of the boxes.”

“Storage is everything,” says Tom Malover of Michigan’s Hopheads Farms, one of the producers for today’s version of Harvest Ale. “I’ve driven a reefer full of wet hops to Dallas in about 18 hours and they were super fresh. I keep the reefer down a little below freezing. They are actively composting, so even with the reefer below freezing the hops would never freeze since they constantly rise in temp. It’s very normal for Pacific Northwest wet hops to show up like trash.”

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Some farmers from that region won’t even ship wet hops at all due to quality concerns. John Laffler of Off Color Brewing in Chicago makes a wet hop ale called Aqua Predator, also featuring Hop Head Farms hops. “When we originally asked the farm in Oregon that grows our Apex Crystal if they would send us some, they told us they wouldn't feel comfortable doing so,” he says.

Between the time constraints, natural degradation, and shipping logistics, there have been a number of times when Kosmicki and his crew had to make some hard quality decisions when a slow, poorly handled, or errant package of hops finally showed up. “When you don’t get those things when they are supposed to be there, they are garbage at that point,” he says.

But sometimes, the decision wasn’t so clear and they relied on the blending of batches to sort out inevitable inconsistencies. “We learned to order more than we needed usually,” Kosmicki says. “Just to make sure we covered our bases there. If we did have extra, batches at the end would get more in the mash tun. We add these things over several stages throughout the process. They were still pretty wet at that point, I don’t think we had to worry about them igniting. They get warm, brown. You just gotta use your senses. If it looks gross, you don’t want to put that in the beer. If they don’t look good, smell good, they probably aren’t going to taste that great, either.”

If you’re not set up for it, and few are, using whole cone fresh hops is also a logistical issue inside the brewery. “Fortunately, we have a pretty awesome fabrication team here,” Kosmicki says. “And they were able to do some modifications to our kettle. We actually fabricated some pretty awesome stainless steel mesh depth chargers, sort of, that drop down into the kettle that get pulled out with a winch system. It is kind of a big investment, kind of a big deal, like I said, but it was something we had to do if we wanted to keep making this beer.

Eventually, the team decided to try and work the last-minute scheduling out of the equation altogether. With a much larger brewhouse and a major expansion project underway, trying to clear a gap in the production schedule because the harvest decided it was time simply didn’t jive with the rest of the business.

“We’ve worked over the last few years on scaling up the overall volume of it,” Kosmicki says. “We made some modification on the production side to be able to make this thing on the 80-BBL system. Instead of making it for two weeks straight, we’ve got it down to about a week, and we still hit our volume numbers. It is one of those beers that I don’t ever want to see the volume go up too much because, even at this point, I still hate it when I find a four-pack of that stuff on the shelves in November. It should be gone. People need to drink it fresher.”

As of November 27, you can get a four-pack of Founders Harvest Ale delivered from Drizly in Chicago for $12.99. It’s the same at Binny’s Beverage Depot, a liquor store chain with more than 30 locations in The Windy City metro area and elsewhere in Illinois. In other expansion markets where Founders rode in on the back of their flagship, All Day IPA, Harvest Ale is also still widely available. It’s $15 in Boston, $13 in multiple California Total Wines, and $10 in Dallas/Fort Worth. All this despite the beer carrying an enduring 99-point rating on RateBeer.

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“I never want to make too much where it is just sitting around,” Kosmicki says. “Because that is a beer, more so than any of our other beers, that should be consumed immediately. I want to say we did about 2,000 barrels of it last year.”

Back when it was first racking up those points from drinkers, Harvest Ale was at the forefront of freshness, and maybe even flavor, when it came to newer hoppy beers. But these days those cues are being found in an even newer style, the New England IPA. Also known for its freshness cues (and more so for how quickly it’s made and sold, than how freshly harvested the hops are), the NE IPA (or so-called “hazy IPA”) style offers drinkers the distinct impression of freshness along with bursting aromatics and a variety of flavor expressions that simply aren’t possible in a typical wet hop ale.

You just gotta use your senses. If it looks gross, you don’t want to put that in the beer. If they don’t look good, smell good, they probably aren’t going to taste that great, either.
— Jeremy Kosmicki

Kosmicki says that “wet hop” kind of has its own powerful flavor, but perhaps lacks the sensory range of other hopping techniques. “With the wet hops, it’s a little harder to distinguish because there is just so much about that fresh hop flavor that you are getting,” he explains. 

When asked if wet hops have a narrower range of flavor compared to processed, pelletized hops, he concedes they do: “To some extent, definitely, more so than in the pelletized I think.” 

From the days when he’d source Simcoe and Amarillo from Yakima, to now sourcing the C-hops of Michigan, he doesn’t see much difference. “I’ve hardly noticed that much change switching to Michigan’s ‘C’ varieties,” he says, in this case referring to Centennial and Cascade. “Being able to use them that fresh is that much more important than getting the boutique varieties in there.”

These days, Founders sources from a variety of Michigan producers for Harvest Ale, including Hophead Farms and Hopyards of Kent. “I think we dealt with three different farms this year,” Kosmicki says. “We try and spread the love around. All the Michigan growers want to get their hops into people’s wet hop beers.”

The Founders team are able to pick a date, lock it in, and take whatever’s available to harvest. And that gives them control over the brewhouse even if it means giving up control over the hop varieties themselves. “We kind of schedule in when we are going to make this beer, rather than around when they are picking certain varieties,” Kosmicki explains. “We give them a list of our favorite hops and whatever is coming down in that timeframe, just going from the top of our list down. It has traditionally been the end of Centennial picking. Cascade is usually available. Chinook is usually right in that window as well. And those three are usually at the top of my list for what we tend to get here in Michigan.”

Eventually you could reach your hand down into the middle of the box and it would be hot—hotter than a hot tub, 123-130 degrees. And the stuff right in the center would be rotted, composted from that heat.
— Nate Walser

For the first time in 2017, Founders Harvest Ale is marketed as “100% Michigan-grown hops,” a boon for the still-growing Michigan hops trade gradually being sought out from more brewers around the country. Competition for hops among small brewers is fierce at times, depending on the varieties, and having grown 20,000 pounds of wet hops this year, Malover says his Hopheads Farms has demand far and wide. 

“I drove a handful of routes this year,” he elaborates. “Asheville, Cleveland, DC, Memphis, St. Louis, and the Florida panhandle.”

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But for all the excitement around the fresh, local hops themselves, Kosmicki finds he needs a little help from his friends to dial in the flavor. “I still use pellets for the bittering charge just to make sure we get the IBUs right, because we don’t have any alpha information when these wet hops show up,” he admits. “I rely on a bittering charge from pellets just to make sure we get the bittering level close, and then it is wet hops from then on out.”

While that flies in the face of the “wet hops” marketing of the beer, it turns out it also challenges the localness of the hops themselves. The Simcoe he uses for bittering still comes from Yakima.

The marketing team might be a bit too eager to lock in that local message just yet, but in the evolution of the beer itself, it’s undeniable that it’s evolved toward a completely different entity—one with a very different role. What started as a Pacific Northwest logistical nightmare brewed in Michigan for local audiences only, Harvest Ale is now mostly a Michigan-born beer in terms of its prevailing agriculture. And it’s shipped all over the country.

Words, Michael Kiser
Photos, Stephanie Byce