We’re on the tail end of it, but this time of year is the peak season for the release of one of the most ephemeral types of beer—those made with fresh hops. These beers are made with freshly-harvested, un-dried hops (sometimes called “wet hops”) and added to the beer at some point in the brewing process. Sometimes they replace the regular dried hops entirely, more often they are used to complement dried bittering hops.
The use of fresh hops lends a very different character to the finished beer than those with dried hops. They can be intensely floral and fruity, have very “fresh” plant or vegetal characters like fresh-cut grass or chlorophyll, and (in my opinion) can be very “bright” in a way that’s tough to describe without having smelled and tasting one yourself.
Fresh hop season is one of my favorite times of the year for beer, and these beers don’t last long. To help commemorate the hop harvest this season, I thought I’d write a bit of history on fresh hop beers, particularly focused on Central Oregon.
The first documented commercial fresh hops beers date to the early to mid 90s. In 1993, the late beer writer Michael Jackson chronicled a fresh hop beer made in England:
Trevor Holmes, head brewer at Wadworth, of Devizes in Wiltshire, was inspecting the harvest a year or two ago when he began to wonder how beer would taste if it were aromatised with hops fresh off the vine.
The practicalities are such that it could be done only once a year. Mr. Holmes tried it first last year . The 100-barrel brew was meant to last a month; it sold out in a week. This year, there are almost 300 barrels.
Mr. Holmes has used the first of the new seasons malt to make his “green hop” beer. The brewery calls it simply Malt and Hops. I can think of only one other brewery that has tried making such a “biere nouvelle,” and that is in the far West of the United States.
The “other brewery… in the far West” of the U.S. Jackson referred to was probably Bert Grant, whose Yakima Brewing (located among the hop fields of Yakima, Washington) was the first post-Prohibition brewpub in the United States. Portland-based beer writer Jeff Alworth wrote a few years ago:
In the mid-90s, he decided to take advantage of the vast wealth of hops that grew within a few miles of his brewery in Yakima (where well over half all domestic hops were grown at the time). He sent folks from the brewery out to the hop fields during the September harvest while he started prepping the mash tun. They gathered a batch of fresh hops, brought them back to the brewery, and within minutes of having been picked, were dumped into the boil.
Concurrently with Grant’s fresh hop beers, California’s Sierra Nevada in 1996 brewed their Harvest Ale, their first fresh hop beer, with freshly-harvest hops flown in from Yakima.
Here in Central Oregon, Deschutes Brewery was the first to release a fresh hop beer, Hop Trip, in 2005. It was an American-style pale ale infused with fresh Crystal hops sourced from the Willamette valley. This was only three years after Karl Ockert at BridgePort Brewing brewed what was probably the first fresh hop beer in Oregon in 2002. (In a nice bit of synergy, Ockert is now Director of Brewing Operation for Deschutes.) So Deschutes was definitely on the forefront of the Oregon fresh hop phenomenon.
In 2007, the Oregon Brewers Guild partnered with Travel Oregon’s Oregon Bounty to launch the first “Fresh Hop Tastivals” around the state; Deschutes Brewery hosted the Tastival when it came to Bend. This event is what eventually morphed into the Sisters Fresh Hop Festival in 2010, which was started by Three Creeks Brewing.
In addition to Hop Trip, Deschutes regularly brews something like a dozen fresh hop beers each fall, and packages several, including Chasin’ Freshies Fresh Hop IPA.
Other breweries followed suit, like Silver Moon with their Hoppopotamus, Three Creeks with Cone Lick’r, and Crux Fermentation Project which regularly brews four or five different fresh hop beers each season, including one using hops grown in front of the brewery.
These days it’s almost more unusual for a brewery to not brew a fresh hop beer each fall, and this year (2016) saw at least three dozen beers from 16 Central Oregon breweries. A unique feature to a number of these beers was that the hops were locally grown:
I’m sure there are others I am missing from this list as well. Hop farming has been growing in Central Oregon, and while it will likely not get anywhere near the levels seen in the Willamette Valley, it has become an important local component to the regional beer economy. Especially at a time when “local” is more important than ever in beer.
There are still some fresh hop beers on tap now—don’t miss out on the last of this ephemeral beer season!