Fresh hop beers are here! And Oregon brewers are celebrating in a big way.
Fresh hop — sometimes called “wet” hop — beers only happen once a year, when hops are harvested in late August well into September.
Most of those hops are dried, which preserves them so brewers can use them throughout the year. But increasingly, a percentage of hops never make it to the drying kilns. These hops go directly from bines to brew kettle — sometimes within just hours — to become the main attraction in fresh hop beers. (Incidentally, bines are different from vines. Bines wrap themselves around a support, while vines use tendrils or other means to cling to supports.)
The beers that are made with the fresh, or “wet,” hops celebrate the Northwest’s rich hop-growing and brewing cultures and communities. And while breweries from other parts of the country are also starting to make fresh hop beers, they are really best known and celebrated around Washington and Oregon, which are also the two largest hop-growing states in the country.
“Fresh hops beers are quintessentially Northwest,” says Dave Fleming, a professional brewer for more than 20 years, who now sells hops to other Oregon brewers for Willamette Valley Hops. “I liken [the use of fresh hops in a beer] to my grandmother picking green beans from the garden and then cooking them for dinner 15 minutes after they were picked. Nothing tastes fresher.
“The hop growers are so close to so many Oregon breweries — most are between 25 to 80 miles away — so brewers can go from bine to kettle in only a few hours.”
Over the past several years, as craft beer has become more popular, so have fresh hop seasonal brews as a way to celebrate the harvest and the contribution hop growers make to the local economy: Oregon’s hop industry is made up of approximately 30 growers from 22 families that farm more than 6,000 acres, producing more than 8 million pounds of hops. Oregon produces approximately 17 percent of the U.S. market share, which is about 5 percent of the hops grown in the world, according to the Oregon Hop Commission.
Aside from the stipulation that fresh hops are used in the beers, they can be any style, but most brewers choose to use their fresh hops in styles that are hop-forward, like Pale Ales and India Pale Ales, so the fresh hop flavor can be showcased. Beer fans enjoy tasting all the varieties of hops and beer styles that can be made with these very seasonal ingredients. And it’s not uncommon for beer fans to adamantly broadcast their favorites.
“The brewer’s art is on full display in [fresh hop beers],” says beer lover Frank Enderle of Portland. “Those who can showcase the hop’s attributes win.”
Why all the excitement? Think of hops’ role in beer as being similar to the role of spices in food. Dry hops, like dried herbs, are more potent, because the water content has been drastically reduced. But fresh hops, like fresh herbs in food, also lend different nuances to a beer. And, much like the wine world’s Beaujolais, fresh hop beers are meant to be enjoyed immediately. That’s why beer fans anxiously anticipate this time of year, when the fresh hop beers are just arriving.
To help beer lovers get their fresh-hop beer fixes, the Oregon Brewers Guild hosts several Fresh Hop festivals around the state, as a way to celebrate these once-a-year treasures. Hit oregonbeer.org to find one near you.