As summer wanes on the PNW, another sensation waxes — no, not pumpkin-flavored beers (although if ANYBODY has tried a pumpkin beer that doesn’t taste like someone poured pumpkin spice into a repurposed stout, please let me know where to find it).
Of course, I’m talking about fresh hop season!
Ah, fresh hop season, the moment when hop vines reach a beautifully mature age, get chopped into smithereens, and inevitably churned into the great alcohol that is beer.
As fresh hop season draws nearer and I become more excited to the point that I’m telling strangers how excited I am, I’ll answer the question that strangers have been asking me: what are fresh hops, and why are you foaming at the mouth?
What Are Fresh Hops?
To give the crude answer, fresh hops are hops…but fresher. The noble hop vine (which shares much in common with marijuana plants, but I digress) likes to grow big and tall, stretching to the peaks of the stratosphere — or about 7-50 feet, according to Wikipedia.
Like all plants, hop vines have a time of year when they thrive best, blossoming some big, tasty hop cones. Harvesters then chop these hop cones using top and bottom cutters, and through the power of the modern supply chain, hops relocate from plant to brew within a period of under 24 hours.
Typically, harvesters reap the green gold from the vines, process the plants, and prepare them to ship. While this process helps keep hops fresher for longer, therefore extending the reach of different hops, we lose a lot of the naturally hop flavor in the process.
When we take brand spanking new hops, chop them off, then immediately start brewing, we essentially get the “freshest” hop flavor.
But fresh hop season typically only lasts a little over a month, from mid-late August through about the end of September. And the specific dates depend on myriad factors, including humidity, weather, air conditions, growing conditions, soil, and general luck.
What Do Breweries Do With Fresh Hops?
Breweries use hops for beer, and they use fresh hops for…beer.
Beer gets a big chunk of its flavor from hops (depending on the beer style, of course), and fresh hops have the stankiest, dankiest smells and flavors. Fresh hops allow brewers to harness the full aromatic experience of the hop.
So, if you try two of the same pale ale next to each other — one a year-round brew, one a fresh hop — you’re likely to notice a stronger all-around flavor and aroma.
Unfortunately, fresh hop season is an annual flash in the pan, so we can only get these top-notch brews once a year. But the ephemeral nature of these beasts is what makes them beautiful, and the simple pleasure of appreciating a fresh hop beer is more than enough to hold me over for 365 days of rotating around the sun.
The short-lived nature of fresh hops also makes them tougher for big beer companies to harness, so our favorite little guys, the craft brewers, get to bask in the excellence of the fresh hop!
Which Fresh Hops Are Best For Beer?
Which fresh hops are best for beer, and which beers are best for fresh hops?
Well, ALL hops are the best fresh hops for beers! But how brewers use these hops is what makes them great.
Most breweries tend to allocate their fresh hops to IPAs and pale ales since these two styles already emphasize hop flavor. I’ve noticed that many brewers release some one-off fresh hop styles while also brewing some fresh hop special edition versions of existing ales.
Ok, by this point I’ve shown you the wonders of the fresh hop and now you can annoy your friends with Jeopardy-worthy hop knowledge. The only thing left is to find your favorite local brewer and try out the fresh hop style!