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APR/MAY 2005 | REGIONAL | WEST COAST

Ten Years Of Harvest Ales For Sierra Nevada
By Steve Dresler

The idea of brewing a beer with "green hops" arose over lunch with my now good friend Gerard Lemmens back in 1995. This was when Gerard and I met to discuss the possibility of purchasing hops from Morris Hanbury. I had never met Gerard before, but I had developed an affinity for English aroma hops and was looking to incorporate them into some of our existing products. I was also interested in these hops for the development of some new ale styles that I now had the opportunity to explore.

After a tour of the brewery, Gerard and I went to the taproom for lunch and a pint or two. Not only did Gerard have a very extensive background in the hop industry, but he had also spent some time as an R&D brewer for Bass. Sometime after our second pint, he asked me if I had ever thought of brewing with "green hops." I, of course, thought incorrectly that he was referring to whole hops, which are appropriately green in color. He corrected me and related a story of helping an English brewer friend (Trevor Holmes, the head brewer of Wadworth Brewing Company) who had issues with a lack of hop aroma, to whom he had suggested brewing with freshly picked, unkilned hops. I said that the idea had never occurred to me but the thought was quite fascinating, and before the next year's harvest I would discuss it with Ken Grossman, the owner of Sierra Nevada.

Ken has always been one to encourage and sponsor creativity at the brewery, and he gave me the go-ahead. I then had to come up with a formulation. Since we have always waited to brew our Celebration Ale until immediately after hop harvest, I figured I would do something featuring similar hop varieties. Due to the timing at harvest, I decided to limit my formulation to two varieties, Cascade and Centennial. I also decided to brew a relatively "big" beer, since that would be much more forgiving, as I would have no "bitterness" values for the hops I would be using. As far as weights for my hop charges, I got some very sound advice from Dr. Greg Lewis at Hopunion in regard to the percentage of water weight in fresh versus kilned hops.

At one point, I actually put over 800 pounds of hops in our kettle. I was surprised to get any liquid out.

Next came logistics. Once again I turned to Hopunion and discussed the project with Ralph Olson and crew. They were, of course, interested as long as they got part of the proceeds, i.e., beer. We went over the timing of picking two varieties at harvest simultaneously and realized that in any given year we had a one-day window to accomplish the task. On the first attempt, the hops were placed in a large refrigerator box and then placed in cold storage while the second picking was taking place. Even at 29 degrees, the hops soon began to sweat and heat up, which is, of course, detrimental to the aromatics.

The next idea was to pack the cones in pellet boxes of a smaller size and poke holes in the sides to allow the hops to breathe. We had decided to red-label UPS the hops down to Chico overnight, and to save money Ralph taped the boxes together, since they were going on a per-parcel basis. I heard after the fact that it had required a second plane to ship out of Yakima that day. When the UPS driver arrived the next morning, the only thing in his truck was boxes of hops. We got better with planning over the years, and we now ship the hops in mesh onion sacks that are laid out in a single layer in a 45-foot refrigerated truck.

We brew our Harvest Ale with 100 percent fresh hops. As the brewing develops, we usually find that we have more or less of one variety than the other. This allows us to reformulate the brews as we go along to use all the hops shipped, and each of the different fermenters has unique flavors and aromas that can be experienced prior to blending. There is also something to be said for doing 100-barrel batches with 500 pounds of hops. At one point in reformulating, I actually put over 800 pounds of hops in our kettle. I was surprised to get any liquid out.

One of the great challenges of brewing beer in this manner is that you do not know exactly when the brewing is going to take place. Invariably it occurs right around Labor Day weekend, when I have given the bulk of my staff some days off. Back on September 7, 1996, when we did the first brews, we could manage in one day. Now, with increased volumes, it takes us two days. We cannot brew more, as the hops degrade so quickly that 48 hours is the maximum we will go. The first year we brewed 100 barrels, and this year we did just under 950 barrels, including some production from our own hop yard. It's great to utilize almost 5,000 pounds of hops in a two-day production cycle. As an aside, we also have begun dry-hopping a limited amount of our Pale Ale with fresh hops at the same time we brew Harvest Ale, an idea offered to me by another good friend, Steven Pauwels at Boulevard Brewing.

It has been great watching this style of brewing develop over the past decade. It is a hugely creative style, and having had a small part in its beginnings is deeply rewarding.

Steve Dresler is the head brewer for Sierra Nevada Brewery in Chico, Calif.

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