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Fogbelt Brewing Company Wet Hop Festival September 3, 2017

Fogbelt Brewing Company's co-founder Paul Hawley.

This Sunday, Sept. 3, Fogbelt Brewing Company hosts the second annual Wet Hop Festival in Santa Rosa, in Sonoma County.

Commercial hop growing in Sonoma County was, until very recently, a thing of the past, told in black and white photographs of men and women in wide-brimmed hats and white dresses, and the occasional old timer’s story of late summers spent in hop camps along the Russian River in the early to mid-twentieth century.

Now, after a few false starts, hops seem to be making a real comeback thanks to the Norcal Hop Growers Alliance, a collaboration between Sonoma County craft brewers and farmers.

That’s something to celebrate, hence this Sunday’s second annual Wet Hop Festival. Billed as bigger than last year’s event, the Wet Hop Fest brings live music, barbecue, and a hop picking demonstration to the brewery’s partly tree-shaded parking lot on Cleveland Avenue, just a mile from downtown Santa Rosa, all for no cover charge. You might have to pay for refreshments in the beer garden, however.

And why is there a wet hop in your beer? One of the main ingredients in traditional beer, along with malted barley, yeast, and water, hops are the little green flowers of the hop plant that add bitterness to balance the beer’s malty sweetness, and floral or fruity aromatics that can be lightly spicy in some lagers, or triple-intensity in blockbuster IPAs.

Usually, hops are dried and packaged for the brewing industry — the hop kilns that can be seen around Sonoma County, some of them repurposed and remodeled as wineries, were used by the county’s earlier hop industry. Home brewers may have played around with “dry hopping,” or adding dried hops to the beer after the boiling and primary fermentation steps.

“Wet hopped” beers are made by adding the hops either during brewing or after fermentation. The difference is that they’re used fresh off the vine — or “bine,” as they’re actually called — without first being dried, stored, or pelletized. They’re the freshest kind of hop around, and contribute a beguiling earthiness and fruitiness to the beer.

Why Sonoma-grown hops, when there are plenty of hops available from big farms in Washington State?

Admittedly, they get better yields, according to Paul Hawley, co-founder of Fogbelt Brewing Company. “But we can grow very flavorful hops,” Hawley says. Even the character of the Cascade hop, which is a widely used variety you might recognize in classic California pale ales, is less “piney” and more “floral” in Sonoma County, according to Hawley, whose family also runs Hawley Wines in Healdsburg.

Look for Sonoma County originals at the West Hop Festival, like Fogbelt’s pale ale wet-hopped with a variety Hawley calls “Santa Rosa Cluster.” A variant of “Cluster,” this was literally unearthed where it had grown wild along the Russian River since the hop industry’s decline in the 1950s. It’s juicy and fruity on the palate, bringing to mind a “tropical blend” of mango and pineapple juice.

The wet hop beer release happens just as Sonoma County’s grape crush gets underway, and you know what they say about that—it takes a lot of beer to make great wine. Wet hopped beer fits right in: “Brewing with wet hops is a lot more like winemaking,” says Hawley. “You work directly with the farmer and have to be flexible with logistics.” But it’s worth it, he adds: “They are my favorite beers to make and to drink.”

Fogbelt Brewing Company, 1305 Cleveland Ave., Santa Rosa, 707-978-3400. Wet Hop Festival, Sept. 3, 12–8 p.m.

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