Our Unfair Advantage: Fresh Hop Ale
Story and Photos by Kendall Jones
Photo at right: Fresh Hops — The star ingredient for hoppy ales.
I walked into the tasting room at Two Beers Brewing Company in Seattle on a hot August afternoon. To my surprise, I saw a group of people gathered around a large table separating cone-shaped hop flowers from a sprawling mountain of freshly cut bines. (Hops grow on a bine, a type of climbing plant similar to a vine.) I ordered a beer and joined them at the table. For the most part, none of us knew each other: the task was our only bond. We sat silently, working with purpose. Picking the hops seemed more like a compulsion than an option.
After a few minutes, I disturbed the silence to ask about the origin of these beautiful, freshly cut hops. Tyler Pickel, a brewer at Two Beers Brewing, explained that the hops came from his family’s farm near Sunnyside, Wash. Tyler’s father chopped down some bines earlier that day and drove them to Seattle.
It did not take long for us to fill two large, plastic tubs with beautiful, fragrant hops. Tyler was soon brewing a Fresh Hop Ale—a style of beer brewed with hops that are fresh off the bine, typically less than 24 hours after harvest. For beer lovers, Fresh Hop Ale is a seasonal treat reserved for that emotionally challenging time of year when we watch the days grow short and the nights long.
To me, it seemed that Two Beers Brewing enjoyed an unfair advantage in obtaining fresh hops, which are the critical ingredient in Fresh Hop Ale. Truth is, all of our local breweries enjoy a similar leg-up: farmers in the Pacific Northwest grow virtually all of the hops in the United States. Brewing this style of beer in other regions of the country obviously presents some logistical challenges.
Hop Basket to the World
It is no surprise that here in the Northwest we covet hoppy beers. The attraction is visceral. After all, this is one of the most prolific hop-producing regions on earth. All year long, beer enthusiasts reach for especially hoppy libations, like Pale Ale and its big brother India Pale Ale (IPA), but autumn affords hop-lovers a special treat: Fresh Hop Ale.
From August through September, hop-picking machines move dutifully through hop fields outside towns like Sunnyside, Moxee and Toppenish in eastern Washington, reaping the year’s precious supply. The annual crop supplies hops to modest-sized local breweries as well as international breweries like Anheuser-Busch.
The Northwest produces 100 percent of the nation’s commercial hop crop, with about 75 percent coming from the Yakima Valley. In fact, Washington produces 25 percent of the entire world’s annual hop crop. There are other small pockets of production in the country, primarily in New York, but the amount of hops produced in other regions is immeasurable compared to what Northwest farmers produce.
Once harvested, nearby hop-processing facilities transform the fragrant, leafy, cone-shaped flowers into something resembling rabbit droppings. Fresh hops are kiln-dried, pulverized and condensed into green pellets.
It may not seem like a romantic ending for these regal flowers, and the resemblance to rabbit scat hardly sounds appetizing, but pelletizing the hops provides a number of advantages. Primarily, they can be effectively stored and used throughout the entire year. Processing the hops immediately after harvest insures a top-quality product.
About the Beer
To brew Fresh Hop Ale (sometimes referred to as Wet Hop Ale or Harvest Ale), breweries intercept the hops between the harvest and the processing plant. Because of the nature of this beer, most breweries cannot provide details about this year’s Fresh Hop Ale until they actually brew the beer. There are many variables. Each year’s hop crop is different and so is the annual crop of Fresh Hop Ale.
With very few exceptions, every style of beer uses hops, but Fresh Hop Ale is different. It is designed to highlight and celebrate the hops.There is no real official definition of this style but here, where we actually grow the hops, enthusiasts generally agree that Fresh Hop Ale must be brewed within 24 hours of the hops coming off the bine. Beyond that, the beers vary widely.
When designing a Fresh Hop Ale, most brewers opt for a light- to medium-bodied beer intended to display the subtle, nuanced characteristics of the hops. Most Fresh Hop Ales are variations of Pale Ale or India Pale Ale. The flavors and aromas imparted by fresh hops are delicate and there is no sense burying the gentle character in a big, malty beer. Fresh Hop Ales generally take advantage of the spiciness imparted by hops and are often described as floral, aromatic, grassy or citrusy.
There are two Northwest festivals each year that celebrate this style of beer: The Hood River Hops Fest, Sept. 29 (Hood River, Ore.) and the Yakima Fresh Hop Ale Festival, Oct. 6 (Yakima, Wash.). Other than that, look for Fresh Hop Ale at better beer bars across the region. Seldom do breweries package this style of beer in bottles or cans. The character of the fresh hops shines most brightly when the beer is young and fresh. Seek out Fresh Hop Ales from mid-September through the end of November. >>Click here to read: Oktoberfests and Fresh Hop Celebrations in the Northwest
And know that you are drinking something very special.
Kendall Jones is a proud native and lifelong resident of the Northwest. After spending too many years writing about computer software, he decided to pursue his true passion: writing about beer. Kendall produces beer-tasting events in the Seattle area and is recognized in the craft beer community for his work as curator of the Washington Beer Blog, a popular online source for beer news and information.