Fall in the Pacific Northwest is a significant time for brewers and beer drinkers, as it’s the season of hop harvest. The vast majority of hops used in North America for beer production are grown here in Oregon and Washington. Hops are a perishable product—they lose their character over time, as aromatic compounds and bitter oils oxidize and lose their punch—and our access to a wide variety of very fresh hops, chosen for their full potential rather than potability or industrial-strength bittering potential, explains the West Coast tradition of highly-hopped ales.
A Brief History of Hops: Beer has been around in one form or another for perhaps ten or eleven thousand years, but fermented grain beverages have evolved and mutated steadily over that time.
Hops are a climbing vine related losely to hemp and cannabis; the female plant produces a flower (called a cone), which is what is harvested for brewing. Hop cones have been a beer ingredient for perhaps a thousand years, with widespread acceptance coming roughly five hundred years ago.
Hops offer many contributions to beer—a palette the brewer can mix and match from through the use of different strains of hops, added at different stages in the brew—the most historically relevant being the bitter oils (alpha acids or humulones) which give hoppy beer it’s bitterness and also provide antibacterial protection that helps yeast out-compete other sugar-loving critters; but there are also a wide variety of resinous flavors (spicy, citrusy, or piney flavors being the most common) and floral aromatics that can be added through the use of different strains.
Hops are typically dried immediately after harvest, losing most of their weight in the process, stabilizing them for storage, and producing a concentrated, consistent product that is ready for brewing over the next year. But in the Northwest, the last few years have seen an explosion of fresh-hop (sometimes called “wet-hop”) beers, made with large quantities of just-picked (often 6-12 hours earlier) hops. These beers are generally restrained in most ways (body, alcohol, color) to best show off their primary raison d’être: huge floral hop bouquet.
Tomorrow is Portland’s Fresh Hop Tastival. I’m not particularly inclined to attend beer festivals; I’d rather savor a pint each of two or three beers than taste a dozen, and I’m allergic to crowds and lines. But this is one I’d probably make time for, if a crowd of house guests and prior commitments this weekend didn’t preclude it. Fresh hop beers, emphasizing hop aroma over hop bitterness, deserve to be sampled fresh, before the delicate side of the hops begins to fade.
Fortunately for me, we’ll be enjoying a fresh hop beer tasting here at home, as we tap two Corny kegs of a light-bodied English-style bitter, keg-conditioned with hops from our backyard hop vines. I just set up the taps, and I was surprised to discover a delightful nectar-sweet nose. The beer has a light body with crisp hop bitterness and a short dry finish. It’ll be a good session beer, tomorrow—which is as long as I expect it to last.
Hope your weekend weather is as beautiful as it is here in Portland. L’chaim!