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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Fresh Hops in the New York Times

What a delightful surprise it is to see Oregon breweries getting a little attention for fresh hop ales. Writing in yesterday's Times, Portland-based food writer Lucy Burningham gave New Yorkers (and the world) a straight dose of lupulin:
Tiny emerald cones on 18-foot-tall hops plants trembled as workers whipped the freshly cut stalks into roaring machines here at Sodbuster Farms. Gnashing metal fingers then stripped off the sticky cones — female flowers of the Humulus lupulus — and poured them onto conveyor belts, setting afloat bits of hops, like ash from a fire.

The debris, flecked with a resinous, yellow powder called lupulin, stuck in workers’ hair and eyelashes. Even more persistent was the aroma: a lemony, leafy, earthy scent that is precisely what brewers try to harness when brewing fresh-hop beers in autumn...

Fresh hops must be harvested within a few hours’ drive of where they will be used in a brew, as they’re delicate and don’t freeze or ship well.

In Oregon and Washington, hop farmers call brewers hours before a harvest, when plants (called bines — vines without tendrils) have reached perfect ripeness. Brewers will drop everything when they get the call. Newborn baby at home? Too bad. Fresh hops require even more coddling.

As an added bonus, there's a slideshow featuring a certain Hood River brewery.

I know I've mentioned harped on it before, but this fresh hop thing could be a very big deal for Northwest breweries. Although the region is well-known among beer geeks, it remains a fairly well-kept secret to most of the rest of the country, where Bud is still king. So far, American breweries all make roughly the same kind of beers, and so media attention tends to be directed at whichever brewery is close at hand. (And for the New York Times and its very occasional beer writer Eric Asimov, this means those around the Big Apple.)

Fresh-hopped ales, though--that's something new under the sun. Breweries from other regions will plant hop fields and produce their own, but this will be an ad-hoc system (and an inflexible one: once the fields are planted with, say, Cascades, that brewery's fresh hop ales will always be fresh Cascade hopped ales). The Northwest will remain the motherland for hops, and local breweries will have the home fields advantage, able to produce a dazzling array of beers every fall. It may well be the development that propels the region into the consciousness of the rest of the nation.

Stories like this one are a promising start.


  1. “It may well be the development that propels the region into the consciousness of the rest of the nation.”

    Maybe, However, I think there are a few things stacked against fresh hop beers that will keep them from being too big a deal.

    First, the fresh hop character fades very quickly. If there is any bottling or shipping going on the end user will have a less hoppy experience than the original fresh on cask or keg.

    Second, just because it is “fresh hop” doesn’t mean it is good. I have had several fresh hop beers this season and only found a few that I would choose over other offerings on the beer list. There was a huge selection of hop varieties used this year for fresh hop recipes. Some hop varieties just aren’t all that great. An interesting experiment? Perhaps, but not necessarily a great beer.

    I do like the style if it is good (walking man’s fresh hop beer was great) but more often than not I like the hop profile in a regular IPA or 2IPA more.

    So maybe it will get the PNW a little attention but the style itself has a few limiting factors.

  2. East Coasters would probably write more about PNW beers if it was easier for us to find them. Distribution is a major impediment, unfortunately.