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Monday, October 05, 2009

2009: When Fresh Hop Ales Were First Perfected

Fresh hopped beers have been brewed in the Northwest for well over a decade (I had the good fortune to see Bert Grant brew one back in the 90s), but they didn't really explode until three years ago. The rapid adoption of the style has become a signature feature of the Northwest--and also one more or less unique to the region. Breweries in other states make these beers--some on their own hop fields--but since 90% of the commercial hops are grown in the Pacific Northwest, we have the home-court advantage.

The idea is perfectly consonant with the NW ethos. We have one of the richest natural environments in the country, and much of our culture has evolved around this bounty. We have been a leading state on environmental protection and organic farming. For Oregonians (and Washingtonians), fresh means wholesome and good. So the idea of getting hops of the vine and into the kettle within minutes, while they're at the peak of freshness, was an obvious one. Inevitable, really.

Just one problem: fresh hop ales are hard to brew and we've seen wide variability in the last two years.

The thing is, un-dried hops are not just fresher, more vibrant versions of their dried selves; somehow, the acids and oils exhibit their character differently. In a batch of beer, they smell, taste, and behave differently. Often, the character a hop was famous for (citrus, pepper, bitterness, aroma) was changed in subtle or obvious ways. In some cases, breweries failed to get the expected bitterness from the hops. And in some cases, more disturbingly, some hops seem to contribute unpalatable qualities--gassy, herbal, sometimes even vaguely decomposing notes. Of course, in some cases, everything came together and the resulting beer was a new beast--fresh, green, light, radiant. (In 2007, I named Full Sail Lupulin my Satori Award winner for best debut beer.)

As a consequence, over the past three years, breweries have been running real-time experiments with fresh hop beers. (You only get to make the style once a year.) Turns out some hops work really well (Crystal, Cascade, Amarillo) and some not so much (Perle, Willamette). Initially, breweries tried a variety of different beer styles, but ales seem to work best. A couple yeayears ago, breweries were apt to use multiple hop varieties (typical for American ales), but this year, the vast majority used a single hop.

Well, note it down: 2009 is the year it all came together. With only one exception, the beers I tried at this year's Fresh Hop Fest all managed to isolate the good qualities of the fresh hop-- greener, softer, more herbal--and leave aside the bad (review to come). I tried to sample beers with different hops, ultimately tasting beers with these varieties: Amarillo, Brewer's Gold, Chinook, Hallertauer, Liberty, Mt. Hood, Nugget, Santiam, and Summit. All had very clean hop notes, green, but not gassy or composty. Even in good beers, the character of the fresh hop is different than its dry hop variant--the Summits, so distinctly orange-y and intense when dried, for example, were more like Juicy Fruit gum in the Widmer's entry this year. (Okay, not all--the Hallertauers were bizarre. More on that to come.)

I was fascinated by fresh hop ales in years past, but not in love with them. Given the amazing experimentation by US breweries, was inevitable that the country would begin to develop new styles of beer. This fresh hop thing has had real possibility--it was poised to become the Beaujolais nouveau of the beer world (with the Northwest standing in as Beaujolais). But it could have as easily become a fad that died out soon: weird, unpredictable beer is not the kind of thing of which venerable old styles are made. This year, I think we have passed an important milestone. I've tried a dozen or so fresh-hop beers and almost all were interesting, above-average (and sometimes excellent) beers. I don't know whether it was the hop variety, brewing method, beer style, or what, but breweries have figured it out.

My fascination has turned to something less clinical this year. I'm smitten. Fresh hopped beer has come of age.

5 comments:

Soggy Coaster said...

Nice summary. In my area in SW Colorado, we have several breweries using Cascade hops from a nearby hop farm. One question: one of our local breweries decided to use its Cascades to make a fresh-hopped brown ale. It struck me as an odd choice. Have you ever heard of such a thing?

average Joe consumer said...

Three problems with Fresh Hop Beers; Prosaic, Tedious and Insipid.

Geoff said...

Yeah! Great piece. Will be headed down to Portland for the Fresh Hop Tastival this weekend and can't wait!

Anonymous said...

Hops are like grapes -- they are variable from year to year. They are not static. You are making gross generalizations on the organoleptic qualities which could easily be explained by natural crop variability. IMHO.

chezztone said...

How about capsule reviews/recommendations on which ones we should be sure to try at the Portland fresh-hop fest this weekend? Pictures don't help. Please provide this service to your readers. Thanks.

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