At breweries across Maine, something that was once old is new again — wet-hopped beer.
After German brewers discovered that hops make beer delicious and more stable, they turned to this method as the principal way to make it. Now, with the help of hop growers in Maine, like Art Lewis, Maine microbreweries are rediscovering this way to produce beer and are experiencing excellent results.
Understanding what makes wet-hopped beer so exciting starts with the hop plant itself. Hops are like soft, fluffy pine cones. Hops are the seed cones of the plant species Humulus lupulus, and if you look it up you will discover that it has some interesting and possibly familiar botanical cousins. But unlike other green, sticky, budding plants, hops are grown on trellises, not under lamps in basements.
Hops produce resins and oils that impart a balancing bitterness into your beer and also act as a natural preservative. In modern beer production, hops are harvested, dried and usually compressed into pellets to be sold to breweries around the world.
Wet-hopped beer is very different. Due to the volatility of the essential oils in hops and their delicacy, hops are harvested and immediately brought to the brew kettle. The difference is enormous. If you’ve ever made pesto with fresh basil and then tried the same recipe with the dried flakes from your cupboard and noticed the difference, you are just beginning to understand the appeal of wet-hopped beer.
Now in his fifth year of growing hops, Lewis’ self-described “hobby-farm” has become something more.
“Breweries are trying something new,” Lewis said. “The goal is to pick the hops in the morning and get them in the kettle by the afternoon.”
With a farm located in Monroe, a township between Bangor and Belfast, getting fresh hops to breweries around the state is challenging, but rewarding.
“Our hops are hand picked by my friends and neighbors,” Lewis said. “My neighbors actually look forward to it now.”
Art Lewis began his hop growing adventure when he moved to Waldo County.
“[I asked,] what could grow up there? I was enthralled by the climate in Waldo county and Maine in general,” Lewis said. “It’s an unbelievable agricultural area, and I wanted to get into that, but didn’t know what direction to go.”
In 2007, Lewis read an article about a gentleman growing hops in Paris, Maine. He went to meet the hop grower.
“He tore open a small green bud, and he said ‘Here, smell this’,” Lewis said. “I said, ‘Oh man, I’m home. This is what I want to do.’”
Next thing Lewis knew, he was planting 300 hop rhizomes.
Since then, Lewis and Elm Hill Farms have supplied fresh hops to Peak Organic Brewing, Penobscot Brewing, Atlantic Brewing, Deep Water Pub and Orono’s own Black Bear Brewing Company. As you might expect, wet-hopped beers are noted for their fresh, vibrant flavor and herbal notes. Often served from a cask, wet-hopped beers tap into the great brewing traditions of New England. They hint at a future where more beers will be made with ingredients grown entirely in the state of Maine.
“I like working with the independent breweries, because the real reward is tasting that beer,” Lewis said. “When you taste a beer that your hops are in, it’s just unreal. That’s basically the motivation, to help make quality beer I and others can enjoy.”