Even the least discerning of beer drinkers can tell you that fresh beer is better than aged beer. And there’s no fresher beer on the market each year than there is right now.
The 2018 hop harvest kicked off for brewers and hop farms in mid-August and should run through early October. And it’s looking to be a banner year. The Hop Growers of America, a trade group for farmers of beer drinkers’ favorite ingredient, estimates the national harvest this year will be close to 53,000 tons—a 658-ton improvement over last year and the fifth consecutive year of growth.
Most of those hops are destined to become kiln-fire dried hops or hop pellets—dried, compacted versions of the hops that add bitterness and citrus, pine, and other notes to beers. Wet hopped beers, though, make their way straight from the farm to the brew kettle, bypassing the kiln. The difference is not unlike that of fresh herbs and dried herbs.
“Fresh hop beers are probably my favorite beers we brew all year,” says Chris Bivins, brewmaster and co-founder of Atlanta’s Torched Hop Brewing, which is making four fresh hop varietals this year.
But if it’s hard to brew a good beer normally, it’s even harder with fresh hops. The moisture levels are as much as eight times higher than pellet or dried hops, so the physical amount needed per batch is much higher.
That takes some ingenuity among brewers. Portland, Oregon’s Breakside Brewery, for instance, flash freezes them with liquid nitrogen, then smashed them to get concentrated flavors. (“This helps slow the break down process of the hop flavor—effectively providing as much of the floral, etc. flavors of the hops in the beer,” says E.K. Maccoll, director of sales and marketing at Breakside.)
“They’re really hard to make and get right,” says Blake Crosby, principal at Crosby Hop Farm. “There’s an inherent challenge due to the hop load. It can often make the beer a little grassy. Sometimes, it’s hard to get enough hop aroma or the necessary IBUs (International Bitterness Units) to cancel out the malt, which kind to takes away from what you’re trying to do.”
Brewers aren’t wasting time to use fresh hops in a growing number of beers. And that’s important. Heat is detrimental to fresh/wet hops – and they need airflow to keep the oils and aromas at their peak. Brewers close to hop farms transport them via cherry bins, while those who have them shipped make sure they’re packed in boxes with dry ice.
Traditionally, wet and fresh hopped beers have stuck to the hoppier side of the spectrum—IPAs, Pale Ales, that sort of thing. And just a few years ago, brewers would only make one fresh hop offering. But as brewers look to differentiate themselves and demand for fresh hopped beers continues to grow, there’s a vast amount of diversity on the market these days.
Cascade Brewing, for instance, is offering a fresh hopped sour beer in its taproom in Portland. Sour beers don’t usually embrace hops, but that changes at this time of year as fresh hops are more available.
“It’s a celebration of the plant that we grow in our area, but it’s also this influx of peers,” says Kevin Martin, director of brewery operations at Cascade. “It’s like in the wine making world when there’s a great harvest. The quality of everybody’s beer is going to rely on this time of year, so it’s exciting from both a beer making and an interacting with our beer making brethren point of view.”
Hopworks Urban Brewing, meanwhile, has put out a fresh hopped Pilsner called Goschie Estate alongside more traditional offerings like Fresh Hop Totally Chill Hazy IPA.
That wide variety of offerings gives beer lovers a lot to choose from. Here’s a few of the tastier ones we’ve sampled this year.
Austin Beer Works Achtung Wet Hop IPA
A super juicy IPA that explodes with hop and citrus tastes, carrying some earthy pine notes as well. It has a gentle bite at the end.
Hopworks Goschie Estate Fresh Hop Pilsner
A crisp, easy drinking Pils with a smooth, light hoppy edge. A perfect beer for a late summer evening or after raking the yard.
Cascade Funky Fresh Hop: Sterling
The bite of the hops blend wonderfully with this sour blond ale, cutting the acidity and adding a unique twist to the flavor profile.
Ex Novo Fresh Hop Eliot
Ex Novo’s most popular IPA gets a fresh hop twist, adding a grassy, citrusy layer on top of its usual hop forward tastes. A great take on the style.
Breakside Brewing Fresh Hop Cascade Wanderlust
Take the distinctive style of this popular west coast IPA and add a burst of freshness to it. It has a dank, earthy quality (both in aroma and taste) with a crisp hint of pine.