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Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Emerging "Fresh Hop" Style

My tour of the fresh hop beers continued this weekend (reviews to come), and in this tour I am beginning to recognize a through-line in terms of style. Obviously, the key ingredient is freshly-harvested hop, applied liberally. Beyond that, the base beer could be just about anything. Last year I tried three or four lagers, some beers that were very light-bodied, others that were burly and dense.

But this year, most breweries have begun to settle in on a template: a pale-hued ale ranging from about 5.5% to 7% in alcohol. Sometimes they tend more toward a pale ale, others to an ESB, and others to an IPA, but the range isn't that large. For the stronger beers, the bitterness is ramped up; in the milder ones, the brewer tends toward flavor and aroma. To be sure, there are still a few outliers, like Hopworks' Oktoberfest. Some other breweries still seem to be in experimentation mode: Lompoc's got a bock, a red, and the usual pale slated. I wouldn't rule out the possibility that a brewery hits a home run on some unexpected style (Belgians in particular seem little-explored), but so far, breweries seem to be narrowing in on this range.

It makes sense. Dark malts conceal hop flavor, and so the subtle notes that characterize fresh hops would be lost. But lagers are so clean they reveal flavors that maybe brewers might like to bury. As Rogue and Double Mountain demonstrate, throwing a lot of hops in the beer also conceal the subtlety of fresh hopping; the bitterness comes out and the beers lose the very unique note they're trying to highlight. So for now, they've settled on a fairly neutral substrate.

We'll see if this changes in coming years.

3 comments:

Joe said...

When I drink a fresh hop beer I want it to be about the hop, not the grain bill, yeast or some other adjunct.

There was an article in the New York Times a bit ago about what an Octoberfest beer should be. It said something to the effect that it should be enjoyable but not something ponderable. The idea was that if you were thinking about the beer, you weren't enjoying the conversation of your company.

I kind of think that's how the other ingredients for fresh hop beers should be, otherwise we're not thinking about the hop.

Anonymous said...

One quibble Jeff. You refer to the "subtle" notes in fresh hop beers...IMHO there's very little that's subtle about fresh hops. They are all full of elbows and unusual flavors. The only thing that's subtle is the bitterness you get from them, apparently, and I'd actually use the word "subdued" for that.

I know you seek organization and clarity, but to me the most interesting thing about fresh hops is that there's NO rules. Hopefully it will stay that way.

Jeff Alworth said...

Anon, I don't disagree with anything you've said. But fresh hops contribute subtle flavors in addition to strong ones. They wax and wane depending on the temperature of the beer, and seem very volatile and strange. Those sublter ones are lost when you hammer a beer with 80 IBUs.

I know you seek organization and clarity, but to me the most interesting thing about fresh hops is that there's NO rules.

That's so strange--I am suprised to hear someone say I seek organization and clarity. Clarity I'll cop to, but I always thought I liked disorder. Well, no matter, my point here is not to create rules where there aren't any, but to note that there does seem to be a general coherence among the range of base beers I've seen used for fresh hop beers.

Unlike Joe above, I actually think a Belgian yeast strain might accentuate fresh hops beautifully, and I was surprised to see this trend in going with a standard ale yeast. If lagers, with their clean tastes, don't work so well with fresh hops, maybe Beligian ales, with thier funky notes, would. I'd try a saison, personally. Just to see.

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