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Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Brave New Frontier of Fresh Hops

[I'm out of town until September 18 and away from computers of all sorts. On the assumption that you won't have read every post from the past 3 years, I'm reposting a few favorites. See you soon.]

In the past couple months, I've been talking about the emergence of indigenous styles or elements in Northwest beer. In a great oversight, one ingredient I didn't mention were wet hops--the use of which have proliferated rather astonishingly in the past couple years. As the touring fresh hop festival demonstrates, this isn't a niche practice anymore. What's more significant is that this isn't a gimmacky practice to capitalize on local produce; in my fairly broad tasting of these beers this year, I've found that they produce completely original flavors, some of which are extraordinary, and some of which are ... gross.

It is unclear why this would be the case, but the various oils, resins, and acids behave differently when the hop is wet. The alpha acids don't seem to produce the same level of bitterness, and other properties emerge that are as intense as traditional alpha 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. Yet it doesn't seem to be uniform--in some strains, the alpha acids seem to convert better. In my sampling of fresh hop ales this year (reviews to come--or at least begin--later today) I tried beers that were grassy, cabbagy, and in one notable case, weedy. In all cases, fresh hops offer an herbal, organic flavor that isn't totally familiar to the tongue of hopheads like me.

In the next few years, I suspect brewers will learn to work with fresh hops, figure out which work best, and they may start to mix them with dried hops to select the best elements of both. I hope you have a chance to get to a brewery or a hop festival to taste some of these. They are far from universally successful, reminding me of an earlier era in craft brewing. But the experiments are something tasters and brewers can all learn from, and the failures are as important in this regard as the successes.

And as an inducement, here's a teaser: one of the beers I tried was absolutely transcendent. Maybe it's not the only one. Hunting is half the fun!

Originally published October 14, 2007

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