Saturday, October 6, Noon-8pm
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Imagine a new beer. Think about using processes or ingredients that have never been used, or used together. The chances that you can actually come up with something that hasn't been brewed before are low. Super big beer, super little beer, sour beer, salty beer, smoked beer, sour salty beer, smoky sour beer, hoppy dark beer, beer with any conceivable plant, fruit, or vegetable--these have been done. Something really novel happens so rarely that it can radically change brewing. Think of the addition of hops or the discovery of lagering. (Not always, though: that Chelada dalliance didn't go very far.)
|Fresh hops at Silver Moon. Credit: Silver Moon.|
It didn't immediately seem exceptional. The aroma was sharp and very floral, but not particularly strong. The first wash of flavor was all early kettle Bravo, quite stiff. The beer is made, in the manner of the "summer IPA" (TM, patent pending, Jeff Alworth), with pilsner malt (plus a dab of oats), and is very pale--luminous, but bordering on the insubstantial. An easy beer to underestimate by visual and olfactory inspection.
With the swallow, though, all is revealed. With a strange, oily heaviness and an absolute explosion of flavor, the final swallow reveals a wondrous alchemy. It's no longer a beer but something startlingly vivid and purely hoppy-- the flavors were so concentrated I felt like I was drinking hop oil. It wasn't until I told Sally--at this point onto my own pint--"I've never tasted anything like this in my life," that I realized it was true.
And I started thinking. So far as I know, fresh-hopping beers has no historical precedent. Before we go any further, let me direct your attention to the very large asterisk: *. As far as I know. My nose has spent precious little time rousing the dust from the inside of original source materials. That is the purview of real historians. I think it's entirely possible that from time to time brewers might have used fresh hops to spice their beer. It occurred to breweries near hop fields in the 20th century, so why not in any of the preceding six or eight?
But as a style, and a maturing one at that, I think the beers have evolved into something completely novel. Even five years ago, breweries really had no idea how to brew with fresh hops. Like my fellow Portlanders, I've made a fairly careful study of these things over the years (read: swilled many), and five years ago, this was one major theme:
Revealed to me in this group is a unique flavor/aroma that I haven't yet found the words to express. None of these is right, but perhaps together you can begin to sense of its nature: "gassy," "cabbage," "sulfur," "weeds." Sally described it as that volatile smell you get when you turn over composting leaves. It has the quality of decomposition.
I related the story of one brewery's misadventures in this era:
The alpha acids don't seem to produce the same level of bitterness. One brewery last year--they asked to keep this on the QT--brewed a batch they thought would be intensely bitter, but it came in at something like 30 BUs. The beer was never released.One of the great innovations was deploying a bitter charge of normal, dried hops. This gives a defined, clean pedestal on which to place the green hops. (I suspect that in the boil wet hops contribute more vegetal matter which may account for the cabbage flavors--though this is wild speculation.) Over time, breweries have learned which hops lend themselves to fresh use. Every year, several dozen Northwest breweries make over a hundred fresh hop beers, and with sample sizes that large--and a close-knit, chatty community of brewers--everyone's learning the lessons quickly.
I was not an early fan of fresh hop beers. I loved the phenomenon, but thought of it more in terms of the beaujolais nouveau--green, fresh, but ultimately unrefined harvest beer. No doubt there are still examples of this kind of fresh hop beer (and I think a lot of people love their exuberance), but brewers have punched through to a whole new dimension. I welcome rebuttals, but it surely seems like that exceedingly rare bird: a new kind of beer. Your thoughts?
Update. A quick clarification. The point is a bit difficult to tease out, but I'm talking about something more than a novel twist on an old style. Pumpkin beers obviously didn't exist before Europeans learned of the squash's existence. But the experience of drinking a pumpkin beer doesn't register as particularly revelatory--just a bit different. Take lagers instead. They really aren't a radical difference--a new yeast strain plus cold fermentation and conditioning. But the experience was hugely different. Before lagers, all beers were sour or smoky or at the very least, estery with warm fermentation. Lagering made cleaner beers that expressed the character of malt and hop more directly. It must have been shocking to people used to drinking ales of the time. The way hops taste in beers like Chasin' Freshies is to me as different as lager is to ale.