North American hops are harvested in the final weeks of summer. Most are dried and turned into pellets, prolonging their shelf life and keeping us drowning in IPA year-round. A select few, however, are rushed from vine to brewery. These hops are only usable for a day or two, so you can be confident the wet-hop (sometimes called fresh hop) beer in your hand was brewed with hops from the latest harvest.
The first leg of my hop hunt was in Ramona at ChuckAlek Independent Brewers (2330 Main St.). It had just tapped two wet-hopped beers, a 6.5-percent ABV rye pale ale and a 5.2- percent ABV amber. The rye pale poured a light straw color, with rye taking center stage on the palate. It was a little flat, but given my previous experience with ChuckAlek beer, I think this was an aberration. The amber was hoppy yet balanced and the better of the two. The showstopper here, though, was a coffee double bock, brewed with coffee from local roaster Moestra. This distinct lager was drenched in roasted-coffee flavor and set me completely off-task. While not a wet-hop beer, it is a limited release, so stop in soon to get it.
My thirst for freshness next took me to Mike Hess Brewing in North Park (3812 Grim Ave.). Hess boasts one of San Diego's standout tasting rooms, with plenty of elbow room, a long list of board games and a pair of dartboards. On tap was the wet-hopped 40 Acre IPA. Brewing with whole fresh hops is not without risk, and this thin, bitter offering was a little short on flavor. Citrus notes were there, if a bit subdued. It's a drinkable, quality beer but not the homerun I was swinging for. Luckily, I knew exactly where to turn.
Port Brewing's aggressive, hop-forward IPA varieties exemplify the West Coast style, and every fall it brews what might be the best wethop IPAs in town. Pizza Port Ocean Beach (1956 Bacon St.) was pouring a wet-hopped version of the always outstanding Burning of Rome IPA. The first sip presented a green and grassy flavor bursting with hoppy dankness. A lingering piney bitterness demanded another swallow, and the easy drinkability led too quickly to an empty glass.
For the next few weeks, leave Oktoberfest to the Germans and the pumpkin spice to Starbucks. Those bottles will be collecting dust on shelves for weeks to come. Instead, visit a local brewery and try something unique and seasonal. Harvest happens once a year, and the clock is already ticking.