It's Fresh Hops Season
Washington is one of the few places in the US where fresh hop beer is even possible. Here’s how it gets made.
What Exactly Is Fresh Hop Beer, and Why Should I Care?
Freshly picked, unprocessed hops hold fragrant oils and resins that make for a mega-aromatic beer that tastes fresher, greener, and somehow more vibrant than traditionally hopped ales. The catch: These hops must hit the brew kettle within (most brewers agree) 24 hours of being picked, since all those precious oils start deteriorating the minute that fragile hop cone parts ways with the stem.
The Fresh Hop Method
• A brewer gets maybe a day’s notice that hops will be ready.
• That brewer corrals the nearest pickup truck or refrigerated van and hustles to Eastern Washington.
• Often brewers must pick the vines themselves and pluck cones off the vine by hand back at the brewery.
• They race that 24-hour deadline to get those hops in the boil. The sooner that happens, the more of those fragrant oils make it into the beer.
The Usual Method
• Vines are harvested.
• Machinery separates the hop cones. (Before processing they’re called wet hops, since each cone is about 75 percent moisture.)
• Cones are quickly dried in a kiln before they can oxidize or mold.
• Then they’re often compressed into pellets that resemble oversize rabbit food.
• Brewers purchase 200-pound bales and store them to use throughout the year.
Working with actual plant life rather than pellets poses a few challenges, like making sure leaves and bits of hops don’t get stuck in the equipment. Calculating the proper amounts requires a bit of guesswork; fresh hop beer needs anywhere from five to seven times the quantity of hops.
Where Can I Actually Drink This?
Small quantities mean fleeting availability. On September 27, the Noble Fir in Ballard dedicates most of its taps to fresh hop pours from around the Northwest. thenoblefir.com
Fresh Hop Decoder
Washington grows more than 50 hops varieties (75% of which are grown in Yakima Valley). These are some of the most commonly used in local fresh hop beers.
Has citrus flavors, namely tropical ones like passion fruit
Piney-scented, reliably bitter, and usually in short supply
Intensely grapefruity with a serious kick of bitter
Grassy and vegetal; a favorite of Northwest brewers big and small
Packs more bitterness than a Cascade but has subtler floral and citrus notes
Illustrations by Melissa Martin.
This feature appeared in the September 2014 issue of Seattle Met.