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Tuesday, September 24, 2013

You Know a Fresh Hop Beer by Its Taste

Let us consider the fresh hop beer.  A seemingly simple beast, it is made from the addition of undried hops rushed sun-warm from field to kettle (or tank).  In recent years this simplicity has been obscured by off-topic etymological and existential discussions about what "fresh" really means.  It has come to mirror--or rhyme with--the debates about gluten and organics, as if the best way to ascertain the true nature of a fresh-hop beer is to check your conscience.  Can it be a fresh hop beer if some dried hops are used?  Can it be a fresh hop beer if none are used?  These inquiries lead in the wrong direction, to ethics, and away from the thing that is so blindingly obvious.  The "fresh" in the fresh hop comes from the living plant and anyone who has tasted that life in a beer appreciates it through the proper instrument, her senses.

This is not rocket science.  What we should be looking for in a fresh hop beer are those very obvious flavors and aromas that ooze out of the [pick one: fresh, wet, unkilned, undried] hop.  We know a fresh hop beer not by querying the brewer about his methods, but by tasting it.  I recognize that a lot of people in the world haven't had the chance to try these beers, so Pacific Northwesterners must act as envoys to tell of these wondrous creatures from afar.  The first lesson is: they're about as easy to distinguish from normal beers as a porter is from a pale.  If you're sniffing and swishing and cocking your head trying to figure out if the beer was made with fresh hops, it's not a good example no matter how it was made.  If you're getting lively, feral, sometimes unsettling flavors, that's a fresh hop beer.

I am all for truth in labeling, and I endorse Bill Night's long crusade to expose breweries who call their beer "fresh hop" when they're nothing of the kind.  But it obscures the far more relevant and important inquiry into the joys and wonders (and mishaps and disasters) that are to be found in those that are manifestly fresh hop beers.  They are their own thing, and their thing is obvious.  We should go forth and discover.  (I've already written about my discoveriesA lot.)
Hood River Hops Fest
Saturday, September 28, noon-9pm
Between 5th & 7th Streets and Cascade and Columbia Streets
Kids okay until 5pm
$10 for a mug and 4 tickets, additional tix $1
Full list of beers here

One way you can make your own discovery is by heading out to Hood River on Saturday for the annual festival of fresh hops (called, slightly misleadingly, Hops Fest).  There are other, smaller fresh hop fests around, but if you want to get a serious immersive experience (and you should!), Hood River is the place to go.  They have a large selection and equally as important, a large enough supply so that the kegs won't blow at 2 pm.  It is a fantastic way to spend a fall afternoon, and after about three tasters, you'll begin to full appreciate why the nature of "fresh hopping" isn't a dry philosophical inquiry but rather a immediately sensuous one. 


  1. As breweries have veered in the direction of using dry hops for the bittering and fresh hops for aroma and flavor, fresh hop beers have improved in my estimation. There are still plenty of sketchy results out there, but there seem to be many good fresh hop beers this year. One of the things I remember from my own fresh hop brewing experiments is that fresh hops are horribly unreliable when used for bittering, but may provide unique character when added late.

    I fully support Bill's crusade against fraud. Any beer that does not use at least some fresh hops is not a fresh hop beer. I'm sure there are supple arguments that take an opposing view. Sometimes I wonder what happened to common sense.

  2. @Pete: Fresh hops are perfectly reliable for bittering. The trick is determining the amount of bittering compounds present in the hops (difficult without a lab, though of course you can go by the averages for the variety) and / or the amount of moisture present in the hops (because you'll obviously need to use more fresh hops than you would dry). If you have to guess, then yeah, the results will vary. :-)

  3. Jeff, You hit it on the head! I kept looking for nice ways to comment on Bill's Fresh/wet rant, and the comments that followed, regarding marketing and labeling of these beers and thought most were missing the point. Fresh is the term I use and refers to exactly what you said, a perception of the beer itself as having all the range of not so subtle flavors and aromas fresh hops impart. If you have to explain that it actually does have Fresh Hops in it, you've lost. If it is missing that, what I like to call "horticultural" mouthfeel, who cares about where, when, which and how much Fresh Hops were added? I felt some of the comments must have been from people who haven't really had a Fresh Hop beer. I can't explain the confusion otherwise. Like you said, pale to porter, or like I say, Freshly squeezed (wet oranges:P) versus concentrate.

  4. I would like to add one small point to the conversation: not all fresh hop beers need to be over the top with extreme hop flavors. While they still should exhibit many of the other characteristics of fresh hop beers (specifically grassiness and vegetal flavors--Jeff's "feral" and Vasili's "horticultural"), fresh hops beers made with large amounts of smaller AA hops can offer lots of subtlety and nuance along with the hop flavors. Yes, fresh hop beers are related to IPAs, but fresh hops beers should not be exclusively governed by the same categorical imperatives. Case in point: wild hops grow all along the local bike paths her in Dayton, Ohio. Every year I make several fresh hop beers with those hops, with usage ranging from 1-2 lbs. per 5 gallon batch. These hops offer very little bitterness to the finished product, even when using a pound for the bittering addition. Trust me, I've tried. Still, the grassy earthiness is there in the flavor--they are clearly fresh hops beers in flavor--but behind that there are also delicate shades of pear and apple dancing amongst the grassiness. Would people normally identify a beer like this as a fresh hops beers if not prompted when trying it? I'm not sure. But I do think that beers like these have a place within the larger conversation regarding fresh hop beers.

  5. @ what we're drinking: I totally agree. Fresh Hops are not some extreme beer endeavor. They just have a huge dimension and depth that beers made with the freshest of kilned hops do not have. I still like the fresh squeezed vs. concentrate analogy. They are still categorically the same beverage, just one has so much more dimension. I think Am. Pale Ale family beers tend to highlight some of the flavors best, but first and foremost, you shouldn't need to be told they were made with Fresh Hops to be able to taste these types of beers. Not because they are so over the top, but because there is so much more to the hop in these beers.