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.