On Making a Good Fresh Hop Beer: the Brewers Speak

Fresh hop season is now mostly in the rear-view mirror.  There are still some fresh hop beers floating around, but we're now six weeks out from the harvest, a good long since the hops came off the vine.  The best beers have already blossomed and faded, putting 2013 in the books.  In my unofficial tracking of things, fifty-one breweries and two cideries used fresh hops to make 91 beers and two ciders.  My guess is the actual number is safely north of a hundred beers, but it's very difficult to keep track of such a fluid and evanescent moment.

Fresh hop beers have been around twenty years, but I don't think that breweries actually figured them out until just three or four years ago.  I first started writing about them in 2007, just about the time fresh hop beers started becoming a mass phenomenon, with many breweries making them.  I awarded a Satori (best beer of the year) to Full Sail Lupulin, a fresh hop beer, but it was an outlier.  A lot of my experiences were along these lines:

"The bitterness was notable, but it didn't taste like hop bitterness, but like ... well, like a pot of boiled weeds."

".... a slightly off aroma that you might charitably call "cabbage." As it goes down the gullet, and particularly after it warms in the glass, "garbage" or "compost" spring more quickly to mind."
That quality of decomposition was especially notable and prevalent.  It was the element I once used to separate the good from the bad, and the percentage in 2007-2009 probably wasn't much better than 50%. Winners on the level of Lupulin were extremely rare.  The excitement of fresh hop season and the postcard images of breweries at the hop fields made for a feel-good season, but not necessarily great beer.  For years I was a skeptic.

But lo, in the last couple-three years, breweries really started dialing it in.  The number of breweries making compost beer dropped precipitously, and those vivid, green flavors I found in Lupulin were everywhere.  Perhaps as many as ten percent of the beers really rocked me back--they seemed both extraordinary and authentically novel.

So what changed?  I inquired with a group of brewers that really seem to reliably produce excellent fresh hop beers to see what they had to say.  What were their methods.  My working theory is that using fresh hops throughout the boil--once seen as the only "true" method--added too much vegetable matter and created the compost note.  I couched my question from that perspective and found some agreement.  Here's Laurelwood's Vasilios Gletsos:
"When I moved to Mactarnahan's/Pyramid/PBCo, I didn't have the flexibility to use fresh hops on the hot side [the kettle], so I devised a plan to add them in secondary/conditioning tanks. We did this as whole flower breweries (Deschutes or Sierra Nevada before torpedo) do: stuffed into mesh bags and tied them to the bottom of the vessel (in our case, since we didn't have tank hooks, we cleaned up heavy chunks of stainless and tied then to that). This gave the best, "Fresh Squeezed" flavor I have ever gotten from fresh hops. A beautiful mix of peach fruit cup with a touch of tea, and an unparalleled horticultural mouthfeel (if that makes sense)."
But wait--not so fast!  I also spoke to one of those "whole flower" breweries, Deschutes.  (Most breweries, especially larger ones, use pellets, which are more compact.)  Brewer Cam O'Connor does use them on the "hot side" for some of their fresh hop beers:
"This hop addition happens in the hot wort, usually in the kettle or in the hopback, where wort is transferred onto the hops. The impact we are looking for here is a nice juicy in-your-face hop aroma and flavor without a lot of vegetative flavors. Hop Trip and Chasin freshies are both made using the hot side hop additions." 
But he agreed that "cold-side" fresh hopping has its place, as well.
"This method is very similar to traditional dry hopping except you are using fresh/wet hops to dry hop the beer in the bright beer tank. The impact from this method is usually potent in aroma and flavor and can pick up some of the vegetative qualities from the fresh hop. We make some of the pub beers using this method. It is very difficult to do on a large scale so the pubs work very well. Fresh Hop Mirror Pond is made using this method." 

You note that Cam mentioned picking up a "vegitative note" even in the bright tank? Vasili agreed and offered a recommendation:
"Don't leave it on the hops too long (48-72 hours seems good) before racking it off, which limits contact with the vegetal matter and may be contributing to the [unpleasant] flavors."
Writing for Gigantic, Van Havig added a point I'd never considered--oil content.
I think it really all lies in hop choice. The higher oil hops seem to make better fresh hop beers.  This makes intuitive sense, of course. But it really is the case that you have to start with the right raw materials. After that, I think boiling is a bad idea. It extracts things you don't want, and potentially drives off oil.  So late additions - hop back generally - is where it's at. When we make them, we add a little bit of a known Bittering hop at the start of boil, and then ALL of the wet hops go in the hop back.  We use a lot - 200+ lbs for 15 BBLs. If we need to "touch it up" with dry hops, we use a light hand (1/4 lb / bbl or so)."
Another factor Double Mountain's Matt Swihart points out is how dangerously perishable fresh hops are. 
I think it is those situations where the stinky, vegetative, musty aromas pop up in some wet hop beers. From my perspective, you simply can’t use non-dried hops more than 12-24 hours after picking, unless you can spread them out in a cooler, and keep ‘em cold.
One of main issues, he points out, resonates with Van's point about oil content:
Unfortunately the high moisture and oil content at harvest also starts to breakdown and physically compost once the vine is cut.
Which suggests that the sooner they get into the wort/beer, the better.  (This gives Oregon brewers a real advantage--Portland-area breweries are 45 minutes from the hop fields.)  I'll have a full guest post from Matt tomorrow that gives one of the best descriptions of the care and tending of fresh hops I've ever read.

As with all things brewing, there are different methods and approaches.  Matt recommends using traditional kilned hops in the conditioning tank along with wet hops, while Vasili cautions against it.  (For Matt, the combo is "pleasing" while to Vasili it's "distracting.")  Your experiences may vary.  A consensus seems to be forming around adding the hops later rather than earlier.  In addition, use the freshest possible fresh hops and hops with high oil content. 

After that?  Probably pray to Ninkasi that the crop was good and the oils rich and vibrant.  There's a certain bit of alchemy in the process that makes fresh hop beers a bit of a mystery.