It’s here again–the harvest season. Specifically, it’s hop harvest time, which runs from August through October depending on varietal, growing location and weather. Living here in the lovely state of Washington, we have a fantastic amount of hop products easily available–we are, after all, the producers of 77% of the country’s hops. But what especially excites brewers and drinkers about this proximity this time of year is the availability of fresh or wet hops. As you know, brewers use a number of hop products–dried whole-leaf hops, dried pelletized hops, hop oils and hop extracts. Hops do not store well fresh, so all these products are preserved versions that will be available for months after harvest provided proper handling and storage. The window for utilizing fresh hops just picked is extremely short–and in fact, breweries farther from the hop fields frequently will overnight a shipment directly to the brewery. Seattle is only a few hours’ drive from the Yakima Valley growing area, so brewers will merely drive and pick up a load, usually brewing with the hops as soon as they arrive on site, whatever time of day or night.
So what’s the fuss about wet hops, if most of the beer we consume doesn’t ever involve them?
Different expressions of flavor
Some flavors and aromas are expressed differently or are unique to wet hops–depending on type, this could mean a brighter flavor, an earthier flavor, or a more green, dank and herbal flavor. It’s a great chance to experience the full range of potential that hops offer. And don’t forget, this is the very first time anyone is able to use and taste the year’s new crops. While growers strive to maintain a similar end product year after year, hops are of course an agricultural product. Which means they are naturally susceptible to sometimes drastic flavor differences depending on seasons, weather, water availability, etc.
Probably the best and most interesting part of the fresh hop season is the chance for brewers to leave their cave-like facilities and embrace the work of the hop farmer. Hop harvesting season is a fast-paced, sometimes frenzied event that employs hundreds or thousands of workers to help pick, process, kiln, bale and package hops 24 hours a day until the crop is complete. Brewers and owners frequently take a trip to sample and discuss the year’s offerings and are able to witness and appreciate the reality of the harvest. This can only help facilitate good connections within the industry, putting the spotlight on the greater craft beverage community, all the different things that go into the delicious beverage you enjoy. I imagine it must be very satisfying for the farmers and processors to see (and drink) the culmination of the year’s effort.
Freshness and on-site drinking
Fresh hop beers are particularly poor for storing, so you’re almost always more likely to see them on tap at a brewery or nearby pub. When you see them in bottles or cans, do consider the age–most beers have a fair shelf-life of about 90 days before flavors start to subside drastically and staleness sets in. And anything with a lot of hop matter should be consumed as fresh as possible. This necessity of freshness means you’ve got to get out and say hello to local breweries in person! Which means that you also are getting a better connection to growers, seasonality, and the industry as a whole.
Hoping for fresh hop beer recommendations? Well, as I mentioned, each year is somewhat different, and breweries often choose to highlight different hops as the season goes on. If you live anywhere with a large beer community near a growing region, you won’t have any trouble finding one or two wet hop ales to try. Around here we eagerly await Fremont Brewing’s Cowiche Canyon Fresh Hop Ale, which uses organic hops from Cowiche Canyon to make a smaller-batch ale celebrating a particular farm in the region. Schooner EXACT Brewing Co. hosts an annual trip to Virgil Gamache farms for a group of enthusiastic drinkers who get to brew a beer right on the farm. Hale’s Ales in Seattle hosts a fresh hop beer festival, featuring fresh hop beers from 20 different breweries. You have so many ways but not a lot of time to sample the season, so you’d best get started soon!
It’s nearly that time again, for local Oktoberfest celebrations and packed store shelves showcasing Oktoberfestbiers and Märzens! Most Americans are familiar with the festival as a fantastic excuse to drink German-style beer, but the origins and beer style itself are slightly separate from the huge occasion around the globe today.
But first, let’s talk about the beer. A Märzen beer was historically brewed in the spring (ie., March). Before refrigeration, glycol-jacketed tanks, or even ice, obviously brewing facilities did not have the ability to control temperature, which resulted in poor beer quality and often sour or extra-funky results. Thus, the last brewing was done in the spring and stored in caves, cellars or mountain areas. The very last of the summer beer would be consumed in September and October, as new hops were harvested and temperatures fell. Barrels would have to be emptied for a new season of brewing, after all. These days in Munich there are just six breweries that are allowed to sell official Oktoberfestbier: Augustiner, Hacker Pschorr, Hofbräu, Löwenbräu (ABI), Paulaner and Spaten (ABI). American or global versions make some great renditions of Oktoberfest-style beer, however, though without the strictness of German beer regulation, there’s little standardization within the style, so versions vary greatly. Typically a Märzen is an amber lager brewed with Vienna malt and continental landrace hops. The balance is toward malty and caramel flavors with a dry, clean finish. However, the Oktoberfestbier that has become the major product of the festival is generally lighter in color, body, and gravity. Notably, the majority of American “festbiers” are closer in style to Märzens. The rules bend, but there are some fantastic examples out there today (or will soon be!). Sierra Nevada explores traditional approaches with yearly German brewery partnerships and new (old) ideas. This year they will release a product brewed with the nearly-forgotten Record hop. Snoqualmie Falls Brewery uses spicy Spalt hops in their Harvest Moon ale. And Worthy Brewing in Bend brews a yearly Oktoberfest including both noble and Pacific Northwest hops. My personal favorite would have to be Victory Brewing Co.’s Festbier which is made by the ambitious traditional decoction brewing process.
So now that we have the beer worked out, what about the event? The festival as we know it today began with a version in 1810 for Crown Prince Ludwig and Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen’s wedding celebration. There was actually no beer served until fifteen or so years later, though, and the main events at early festivals were instead mainly horse racing, although tree-climbing became an institution as well. Yes, tree-climbing competitions. Once beer and food vendors began attending the event, the festival grew in popularity and except for 24 war-related years of absence, has continued to this day in the same location where it started, in a meadow in Munich. Now it’s a huge extravaganza with amusement park rides, live music, elaborate tents, parades and more than 6 million attendees.
Purportedly 7.3 million litres of beer were served at Oktoberfest 2015, which sounds like a lot, but with 6 million drinkers…could certainly be more. Or maybe that’s my American ambition talking. Whether or not you join in a local Oktoberfest party this season, I suggest you try a few beers, alongside a sausage perhaps, and give a toast to the harvest season and a new year of beer. Prost!
There are many ways to broadly categorize hops: genetics, typical uses, prominent flavors, regional availability and history to name just a few. It’s an exciting time to be a beer enthusiast as contemporary hop breeding and development programs are thriving. While we here in the US happily welcome newer trademarked hops like Amarillo® and Simcoe® into the canon I think it’s a great time to throw a look back to the original gangster hop group, noble hops: Hallertauer, Tettnanger, Saaz and Spalt.
What do these hops share, and why are they important? Well, for starters, these four are some of the earliest types cultivated for the brewing industry and as such have significant cultural and agricultural weight for the regions and history of beer itself. According to Stan Hieronymous, author of the extensive book For the Love of Hops, the term “noble hop” was only popularized in the 1980s. I would assume that it became an important distinguishing term as American craft beer (featuring new American hops like Cascade) really took off. Regardless, the term now truly refers only to the four kinds of hops when they are grown in the region they represent–much like an appellation designating terroir like Champagne or Burgundy. And indeed, although all these hop varietals can be grown in other regions, they are slightly different products as such. Though there are many American hops that embody similar characteristics to noble hops (such as Willamette or Mt. Hood), there really is no replicating a noble hop’s presence in a traditional style.
All noble hops are considered to be primarily aroma hops as they are low in alpha acid (as opposed to many of the higher-alpha types grown in the Northwest today for IPAs and high IBU beers). Noble hops also have low levels of beta acids which are not isomerized during the boiling process but instead oxidize into a number of other flavors later on. Many German brewers consider these flavors to be highly desirable when in balance. The ratio (about 1:1) between alpha and beta acid levels is important in categorizing noble hops. This ratio is not shared by the majority of other hop types.
So what’s a “noble like quality” hop do for beer, and how do you as a drinker recognize it? All four varieties are said to have a spicy, lightly floral aroma and flavor, which make them ideal for many German and Belgian styles of beer like pilsners, weizens, tripels, and bocks. The Pilsner from Bellingham’s Chuckanut Brewery would be a great place to start, as would Ninkasi Brewing Co.’s Helles Belles Lager, or Silver City Brewery’s Cold One Pilsner. There are a number of other European hops that are considered “nearly noble” for their similar makeup: Fuggles, East Kent Goldings, Hersbrucker and Styrian Goldings usually top that list. Flavors in the “nearly noble” group are different but not secondary in any way and are widely used in many traditional English ales. Seattle’s Machine House Brewery uses mainly English hops in their traditional English-style cask beers.
I adore the noble and nearly noble varieties as well as our big bold piney and fruity contemporary hop friends. The nobles have persisted as important hops for hundred of years now, mostly by the efforts of traditional European landrace hop growers and brewers, producing and brewing high-quality and rooted beers. I commend the American and global brewers who appreciate and utilize these hops in their beers as well and hope that they’re safely set as standards for generations to come. Try a few of the beers above and I’m fairly sure you’ll agree.