You won’t find harvest ale in the Certified Beer Judge style guide, but you will find it on taproom chalk boards in breweries around the state.
What is harvest ale? It’s really a beer that celebrates the fall harvest by incorporating the bounty of the summer growing season. While you might be thinking apples, cranberries, and pumpkins (oh my), it’s also the harvest season for hops. So, for many, harvest ale means fresh hops. And by fresh hops I mean hops that are in the brew kettle within 48 hours of being picked. (For more on NJ hop growing, see my article here.) These just-off-the-bine hops are also referred to as “wet” hops because they aren’t kiln dried like their processed and pelletized brethren. Whatever you call them, they impart crisp green flavors and aromas that just can’t be duplicated any other way.
Jughandle Brewing, in Tinton Falls, traveled a few miles down the road to The Fir Farm in Colts Neck to get their fresh hops. Utilizing organic and sustainable farming practices, the Fir Farm began growing hops in 2015 and provided harvest ale hops for no less than 5 New Jersey breweries. Dark City, Backward Flag, Ship Bottom, Brix City as well as Jughandle all showed up for the harvest.
Mike Skudera of Jughandle tells me that his version is a session (4.8% ABV) amber ale that showcases the locally picked Chinook and Cascade hops. Dark City, of Asbury Park, went in a different direction. They decided that their first IPA would be something special. Kevin Sharpe brought his staff to The Fir Farm and picked 70 lbs. of Cascade, Nugget and Chinook hops. The result is Local Summer, a juicy, balanced IPA whose flavor is “slightly earthy/vegetal as you expect from fresh wet hops”. As a shore resident, the name alone is enough for me to raise a pint.
Hops are characterized as the herbs or spice that season a brewers wort. Up in the hill country of Warren County, Well-Sweep Herb Farm discovered a roadside wild hop and cultivated it. Man Skirt Brewing in Hackettstown used this variety, grown by friends Mark Sloan and Kate Munning, for their upcoming Hop Jostler IPA. It’s going to be a milder English style. “It starts off with some malty sweetness, then the fresh hops bring a bright fruitiness, along with a clean, dry finish. Very easy to drink with plenty of flavor to satisfy your inner hop-head.” according to owner Joe Fisher. If you’re wondering about the name, stop by the brewery for a pint of this taproom-only beer and ask Joe yourself.
Down south, all the way to Cape May Brewing, they aren’t satisfied with just using New Jersey hops. For them, it’s all in with all New Jersey everything. Three Plows—named for the three plows on the state seal—is the first beer sourced entirely from the Garden State. On October 20, Cape May Brewing will play host to East Coast Yeast (Hillsborough), Rabbit Hill Farms (Shiloh—providing the malt) and Laughing Hops (Pennington) to brew this historic IPA. Assistant Secretary of Agriculture Alfred W. Murray is also expected to be there. The beer should be released in early November so check back here for an update in a few weeks.
Here’s a final thought on harvest ale. Most of them are small batch brews and are usually limited in quantity. When they’re gone, they’re gone. In many cases, you’ll have to travel to the brewery to get a taste as they don’t get past the brewery door. Harvest ale pairs well with leaf peeping. Enjoy the season.
Pictured at top: Dark City Local Summer fresh hop IPA.