Some fresh hop beers have already come to market and many others are in fermenters or conditioning tanks across the Pacific Northwest and beyond. One thing is certain, we will soon find ourselves awash in IPAs and Pale Ales brewed with freshly harvested hops; however, if you could turn back the clock just a few years, say to 2010, you would discover a surprising lack of fresh hop beers. Like, practically none of them. In fact, as recently as 2013 I recognized a need to educate people about fresh hop beers with a blog post dedicated to the topic. Can you imagine?
Today, scores upon scores of breweries produce at least one fresh hop beer, which makes some beer lovers smile and others sneer. All of you hop haters and IPA contrarians will just have to deal with it, because there’s no denying that around the PNW this time of year is now fresh hop beer season.
Why should you care? Why should you celebrate the arrival of fresh hop beers? Here are some reasons.
I’ll start by apologizing to those of you who love pumpkin beers. If you love pumpkin beer, fresh hop beer is something of an adversary. Not long ago, this time of year was pumpkin beer season, but the rising popularity of fresh hop beer is driving pumpkin beer to the brink of extinction. Yep, sorry about that. The phenomenon is explained by a simple formula: the production of pumpkin beer grows inversely with the square of the popularity of fresh hop beer. In other words, for every fresh hop beer that pops into existence, two pumpkin beers disappear into the dark abyss.
So there’s one reason to celebrate the rising popularity of fresh hop beers.
It’s not about the hops, it’s about the hops
The most obvious reason to adore fresh hop beer is because it’s tasty. The whole point of making a fresh hop beer is to highlight the aromatic, floral aspects of the hops—characters which are expressed by all of those citrusy, piney, dank flavors that right-minded people love. When well-executed, the hop character is the star of the show.
Much of craft beer’s popularity is directly related to hops, as evidenced by the once skyrocketing and now enduring popularity of IPA and other notoriously hoppy beer styles. So no, I am not surprised that fresh hop beers are popular. Hops are a really big deal. Collectively, we love hops.
For any brewers considering brewing a fresh hop Rauchbier or a fresh hop Belgian-Style Tripel, just don’t. This style of beer is about the hops, it’s not about you and your need to be different. Don’t sacrifice beautiful, precious fresh hops at the whim of your desire to be creative or clever. Color inside the lines and make an IPA or a Pale Ale. A dry-hopped Pilsner? I suppose that’s okay, but do not make another fresh hop Rauchbier or I’m going to call you out by name.
Location, location, location
You live in the Pacific Northwest where our farmers grow about 98 percent of the nation’s annual hop crop. The Yakima Valley alone produces about 75 percent of the annual U.S. hop crop, which in 2016 was valued at about $380 million. For Washington’s agricultural industry, this is big business and the economic impact of hop-related commerce is undeniable. If you like economic prosperity, hurrah for hops!
The industry has far-reaching impacts, including jobs, transportation, farming equipment, fertilizer, insurance, banking, and even tourism. Speaking of tourism, each year hundreds of breweries send thousands of representatives to Yakima to examine the year’s crop and to meet with hop farmers and hop suppliers. They flock here from around the world. You live here. Take some pride in that.
It’s a privilege, not a right
Fresh hop beer, by most accepted definitions, must be brewed within 24 hours of the hops’ removal from the bine. (Yes, it’s a bine and not a vine.) In the Northwest, our brewers enjoy a distinct advantage because it is much easier for them to procure freshly picked hops. In many cases the brewer simply drives to the hop fields and gets the hops, turns around and is able to brew with them in a matter of hours. No need to rely on FedEx and UPS overnight services, which may or may not prove adequate or affordable.
It makes me sad to see someone with an unfair advantage waste it. You, the Northwest beer consumer, enjoy an unfair advantage when it comes to fresh hop beer. Don’t waste it. Think of those poor, unfortunate beer lovers living in places where they do not grow hops.
It’s like my Mom always said, “Finish your fresh hop IPA! Don’t you know there are hop-starved beer lovers in Florida?”
Beer lovers’ Thanksgiving
By its very nature, fresh hop beer season is a celebration of the harvest. Hops are only harvested once per year, so to some extent making a fresh hop ale is like making a tomato sauce with freshly picked tomatoes from your own backyard. While there’s nothing wrong with cooking up a sauce using canned tomatoes and/or tomato paste, why not take advantage of the fresh ones when they’re available?
Truth is, and we all know this, freshly harvested hops are not required to make delicious, hop-forward IPAs and Pale Ales. Breweries produce great beers without fresh hops all year round, so to some extent, brewing a fresh hop beer is a symbolic endeavor. Of course we can actually taste the difference, but even if we couldn’t, we brew fresh hop beers and drink fresh hop beers to celebrate mother earth’s blessed gift of another year’s harvest.
The overwhelming majority of today’s freshly picked hops will get preserved and used to make beer throughout the coming year and beyond. Enjoy a fresh hop beer today to celebrate the bounty of another year’s harvest, knowing that this blessing will continue to satisfy our palates as time rolls on.
So how excited are you for fresh hop beer season? How much effort do you put into seeking out fresh hop beers?