I have now tried two or three dozen fresh hop beers. I am therefore approaching or just over the number needed for my sample to be statistically significant. Revealed to me in this group is a unique flavor/aroma that I haven't yet found the words to express. None of these is right, but perhaps together you can begin to sense of its nature: "gassy," "cabbage," "sulfur," "grassy." Sally described it as that volatile smell you get when you turn over composting leaves. It has the quality of decomposition.
Guess what? I'm not super high on it.
Now, what I've also observed is that not every wet-hopped beer has this, nor is it as strong in every beer, nor is at as offensive once a beer has warmed up a touch (counter-intuitively). So I consider it a risk in working with fresh hops, but not essential to their nature. I recently went through the chemistry of fresh herbs and the constituents in hops, so perhaps after I've tried this year's batch of beers, I'll see if I can line up the "decomposition note" with a particular element in the hop. All of this is by way of introducing my review of four new versions of fresh hop beers. (Incidentally, I'll employ last year's specific scale for rating fresh hop ales: noble failure, decent outing, winner, and sublime.)
By all appearances, this is a classic Oktoberfest. It is a clarion, russet hue, with a nice light head. It was hopped with Willamettes--not exactly the choice of dour-faced Germans, but with its spicy nature, well-chosen. Alas, there's the decomposition note. In this case, it tends toward buttery. As it warms, unexpected aromas emerge. Cabbage, which isn't that unexpected, but also a sweet rose-petal note. The flavor improves, exhibiting more of the underlying recipe, and the fresh hops turn herbal and almost savory (an adjective to which we will return). Rating: Decent Outing.
Again, we're off the grid in terms of familiar adjectives in describing the aroma. Ninkasi's pale, hopped with Mt. Hoods (an aroma hop derived from the spicy German Hallertau), smells of freshly-mown lawn, with a touch of fresh earth and spritz of citrus oil. Sally relates to the citrus as "pine," and I am sent down a philosophical reverie in which I ponder how it is that these two are related, before being pulled out, roughly, by that decomposition note. It's mild but persistent. There also seems to be a "hot" note which I took to be fusel alcohol, but which Sally, calling it "radish," made me think again. Could be another bizarre by-product of the fresh hops. My least-favorite of the four, I nevertheless can't give it a noble failure. Rating: Decent Outing (barely).
Double Mountain Killer Green IPA
I have noticed the increasing use of Perle hops in the US, and it's a house favorite for Double Mountain. Originally bred in Germany in 1978, they are now regularly (and successfully) grown in the US. Double Mountain manages to beat the decomposition note by dumping vast mounds of Perles into this beer. It is vividly hoppy, and has a standard IPA nose, sticky and resinous. The palate is of spruce, not atypcial for Perle, but also of tropical fruit. As the beer warms, that savory note I mentioned above comes out, and here it comes across as ... roast chicken. Sally suggests that it could actually be more like sage or rosemary (but probably sage) which could confuse the palate into thinking "chicken." I'm less sure, but it is odd. Fortunately, the bitterness calms all fears. It's a bold, tasty, and odd outing. Still, I like it. Rating: Winner.
Full Sail Lupulin (Mt. Rainier variant?)
Full Sail has three versions of Lupulin this year, one with the super new and obscure Mt. Rainier hops, and other versions with Cascade and Nugget. I think this was the Mt. Rainier batch, but it could be Nugget, I suppose (distinctive Cascade we can rule out). The aroma and flavor of this beer can be decribed in three words: piney, piney, piney. Smells piney, tastes piney. If you dig deeper, you can evoke mint, but this isn't too different from pine. Good news! There's no decomposition note. John Harris, who last year used Amarillo in his Lupulin (unavailable this year), managed a beer without the note, too. So he's two for two--impressive. I am not personally in love with the mentholated nature of the beer, but it was very well made. I can't call it sublime, but you might. Rating: Winner.
Have you tried any of these? What was your take?