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Friday, October 05, 2012

Something Completely Novel in the Beer World

Fresh Hop Beer Festival
Saturday, October 6, Noon-8pm
7805 SE Oaks Park Way  |  website

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.
All of this came into my mind as I was sitting in front of a pint of Chasin' Freshies, one of the new battery of fresh hop beers Deschutes is brewing.  Actually, I was sitting in front of a pint Flagline, another fresh hop beer (crystal hops).  It was incredibly floral, but the floral notes were akin to those of an orange blossom--kissed by citrus.  An extraordinary beer with aromatics and flavors intense and new.  I was loving it.  Sally was sitting in front of the Chasin' Freshies (really, one of the worst names to which a beer was ever condemned, made even worse by the apostrophe), a luminous, pale golden beer.  Deschutes made it with the heirloom Cascades recently revived from an early rhizome.

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.


  1. Do fresh hops represent an actualy style or simply the use of a new ingedient? It's kind of like pumpkin ales. Is that a style or simply using an ingredient? While most pumpkin ales will be amber ales of varying intensity, I've also seen pumpkin wits, porters, stouts, even Belgian styles and lagers.

    The same can be said for fresh hops. Fresh hopped beers usually sit in the range between pale ale and IPA, but there are fresh hopped IIPAs, fresh hopped ambers, fresh hopped stouts, barrel-aged beers aged on fresh hops, traditional beers, with fresh hop dry hopping or firkin additions.

    Is it a fun aspect of the beer world we are a part of? Without a doubt, but I don't think Fresh Hops is a style by any stretch.

  2. Back when I grew hops on the side of the house, I made fresh hop beers in the fall...with erratic results. This was 10-15 years back. I should add that using homegrown hops tended to create odd results across the board...I never knew exactly what I had in terms of acids, and even hops that had been dried may not have been as dry as they would have been if commercially processed.

    It's difficult to imagine a scenario in which past brewers would NOT have used freshly harvested hops. Drying techniques certainly could not have been very refined in, say, the 1700s and that probably encouraged fresh hop brewing. Perhaps Mr. Eckhardt has some knowledge of historical practices with respect to hops. Regardless, a historical study is obviously in order.

    I think you are exactly right about the evolution of fresh hop beers. They were really bad at the outset because brewers tried to use strictly fresh hops. You can't do that because fresh hops are short on alpha acids. Using dried hops for the base and adding fresh hops for additional character and flavor has made a huge difference. I still object to the green, leafy character present in many fresh hop beers. But I like the concept and these beers are getting better, largely through the efforts of brewers who are determined to get it right.

  3. Wouldn't the first use of hops in history be the use of fresh hops?

  4. I would point out that in the 1835 New York State Senate report on adulteration of beer in the heartland of US brewing of the time, the Albany region, one brewer gave testimony that they sought out hops which were as pale as possible because they were ramming so much in the beer sometimes had a green hue.