Among the 1,541,072 reasons we are lucky to live in this pocket of the world: Seattle is a rare U.S. city located close enough to hop fields (lots and lots of hop fields) that we may partake of fresh hop beer. About three-quarters of the hops grown in the entire country come from Washington, particularly the Yakima Valley. Most of them are dried and packed off to breweries to use throughout the year. But come harvest time, a small amount of fresh hops get carted straightaway to nearby breweries to make special only-once-a-year beers.
Fresh hops impart a grassier, more floral flavor, rather than the bitterness most people associate with this grain. These beers can easily charm people who don’t care for typical hoppy beers.
Since I’m too old to go buy back-to-school supplies, the return of fresh hop beer has become a harbinger of fall. Once again, Two Beers is the first out of the gate on this; the brewery's Fresh Hop 2012 started flowing in the SoDo taproom over the weekend, and is now surfacing outside the brewery. It’s the earliest release yet for its beer. Big Al Brewing also does a fresh hop brew each fall; the Santiam hops are being picked this very morning, and are destined for a batch of Big Al Brewing Harvest Ale, a malty amber, later this afternoon.
Fremont Brewing gets its hops from a one-acre plot in Yakima Valley’s Cowiche Canyon, half of which is dedicated to its Cowiche Canyon Fresh Hop ale. The brewery is hoping to release this year’s version the first week of October, but like a restaurant opening, such matters are moving targets. Schooner Exact, 7 Seas, Big Time, and Iron Horse have also done fresh hop brews in past years.
Not surprisingly, Oregon breweries like them some fresh hop, too. Geoff Kaiser of Seattle Beer News and the excellent Noble Fir bar in Ballard put on an annual Oregon vs. Washington fresh hop throwdown, where 15 versions battle for crowd supremacy. This year’s hop bonanza happens Saturday, September 29. Get there early, brace yourself for a line, and be assured that what awaits inside is completely worth the wait. Not surprisingly, Yakima is also home to a Fresh Hop Ale Festival happening October 6.