Fresh Hop Season is Upon Us: A Quickie Primer
Fresh hop beers are made with cones plucked from the bine, still moist and bursting with life, and rushed straight from the field to waiting brew kettles or conditioning tanks. They can only be made properly within an hour or two of hop fields, so that life, dribbling out of the cones minute by minute, can be locked in as soon as possible. Fresh hops infuse beer with a flavor and aroma unlike anything conventional, dried hops provide, and those qualities fade within days of entering the keg. For six weeks starting usually around the start of September, scores of breweries in the Pacific Northwest begin making these beers, most of which are only available at breweries and pubs.
And we're off:
Summer visited the Pacific Northwest weeks early this year, and that has meant an early hop harvest in Oregon. And that means--joy!--an early start to fresh hop season. Ten years ago, fresh hop ales were a rarity made by the odd brewery. Now it's a regional movement and perhaps the most anticipated month of the year.
Unfortunately, most of the rest of the country has no idea what they're missing. A few breweries now have access to select plots outside the Northwest, but the ones here will produce hundreds of these beers from myriad different hop varieties. The only way to truly experience them is by coming here. Washington breweries source their hops from Yakima, Oregon breweries from the Willamette Valley, and outside this region, you won't find them in the kind of numbers it takes to really dial in your palate. If you have only a dim sense of what fresh hops are supposed to taste like, book passage to the great Northwest and come find out.
Since I have written so much about fresh hops over the years, I won't reinvent the wheel, but instead send you into the archives if you'd like to bone up. Start here, with a bit of background and history. Next, learn a bit more about how they're made:
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.
Next I have a post that literally led to a book. An exchange with Double Mountain's Matt Swihart produced such a rich explanation, it gave me the idea for the book that would become The Secrets of Master Brewers. Of course, the chapter in the book about how to make a fresh hop beer comes from Matt. Read that post here:
The reason for this arduous process is to grab all the fresh aroma of a freshly picked hop and losing nothing in the drying process. At harvest, the fresh cones are rich with oils, resins, and moisture that are the heart and soul of beer, beer flavor and aroma. Unfortunately, the high moisture and oil content at harvest also starts to break down and physically compost once the vine is cut. The drag is with the drying process some very interesting aroma and flavor compounds are lost, hence the goal of using the hops prior to kilning. The competing goals of maximizing fresh hop aroma without introducing the vegetative, composting breakdown of high moisture hops begin at harvest.
Finally, for years, Patrick and I have spent the early fall trawling breweries for those perfectly-ripe fresh hop beers, a form of beer hunting we are both obsessive about. So of course we devoted one of our first podcasts to the subject. In this particular pod, we visit Breakside Brewing and learn about their highly unusual (and fascinating) method.
I'll have more coming along soon, but this should get you started. And seriously, if you're looking for a great getaway in September, consider a weekend in Portland or Seattle so you can truly experience this rare moment.