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Open Mic: Stan Hieronymus

Stan Hieronymus

Author & Blogger Stan Hieronymus at the 2013 Hop Harvest

So what if the history of “fresh hop” beers might be 1,200 years old or only 20? So what if the science behind what makes the aroma and flavors of “fresh hop” beers different is not at all clear? So what if we have to put the term “fresh hop” in quotation marks because it’s not exactly clear what that means? Because what could be more wholesome than a beer made with fresh farm hops?

Any silliness aside, there’s a whole lot not known about brewing with hops directly off the bine, but brewers love making these beers and so far have found plenty of customers. Who may or may not care about the answers to three basic questions.

Hops in Hand

When were they invented?

It sure seems possible that back in the first millenium a monk stepped into a monastery hop yard, picked some hops and tossed them into a batch of beer. However, there’s simply no record of brewers using freshly picked hops in brewing until Wadworth & Company in England brewed Malt & Hops in 1992. Brewmaster Steve Dresler credits Washington hop merchant Gerard Lemmens, a native of England, with telling him about that beer. Sierra Nevada brewed what’s thought to be the first American “fresh hop” beer in 1996. Today hundreds of breweries make beers with freshly picked hops, either shipped directly from the Northwest or purchased from a growing number of small, local farms. One measure of their popularity is the “Green Hop” package hop broker Hop Union offers. The company shipped 6,200 pounds of hops overnight in 2008, compared to 30,000 pounds this year.

What do you call them?

Hops must be dried, most often in a kiln, or used within a day or so after they are harvested. Otherwise they will rot. These unkilned hops are sometimes called them “wet hops” because they may contain 80 percent moisture, compared to 10 percent when dried. Confusion arises when brewers call hops direct from the kiln “fresh hops.” The most accurate, but unfortunately boring, term is “unkilned.”

Why are they different?

Recent studies reveal that hop oils and odor compounds may change dramatically in the days before the cones are picked, and that process certainly continues during kilning – with some compounds lost, but others created. “This is not a scientific exploration of brewing,” said Ninkasi Brewing co-founder Jamie Floyd. “Where’s the economic benefit of analyzing a beer made once a year?” Vinnie Cilurzo at Russian River Brewing draws an analogy to the differences between using fresh and dried basil. “They both do a great job, but you get more fresh aromas and flavors when the product is wet, and it takes more, as you have to compensate for the water that is still in the hops,” he said. “I find more melon and grassy notes in wet hops, grassy almost like a Sauvignon Blanc.”

Why are they worth the trouble?

Shane Welch of Sixpoint Brewery makes a good spokesperson for all the brewers celebrating the hop harvest: “We feel that fresh-hopping is such a special and uniquely seasonal way to present hop flavor to beer lovers, that we see fit to rush literally tons of freshly picked hops cross-country to create this beer.  It’s a labor of love, but it’s worth every sip.”

Shane Welch

Sixpoint’s Shane C. Welch inspecting hops fresh off the bine.

A year after Sierra Nevada brewed the beer it now calls Northern Hemisphire Harvest Ale for the first time, the late Bert Grant made his own Fresh Hop Ale, using only Cascade hops, at his Washington brewery. Drinking it on tap in his pub Grant talked about what he expected from the beer. “You should feel it in the back of your throat,” he said.

Not taste it but feel it. That’s more than hop bitterness talking. That’s freshness.

Hops in Motion

Stan Hieronymus is the author of For the Love of Hops.  Read more from Stan on his blog at appellationbeer.com.

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