Fresh Hop Beer
American craft breweries churn out gallons of pumpkin-flavored beers every fall, most of which taste like a “fall magic” Yankee Candle that’s been moldering in a closet since 2005. But there’s another seasonal beer style that appears in the fall that you should be drinking instead: fresh hop.
Fresh hop beer relies on whole hop cones straight from the bine. Most of the time, hops aren’t used in this whole cone state, but are instead turned into little dried pellets that look a bit like pet food. Some versions of fresh hop beers do rely on recently-dried cones, but they're still extremely fresh. (Some refer to versions made with undried hops as "wet hop ales," but not all brewers abide by stringent naming rules, so the terms are often used interchangeably.)
While the traditional dried pellets have a shelf life of a year or more, the window to use these fresh ingredients is extremely narrow. If fresh hops aren’t dried, a brewer must use them within 24 hours of harvesting them. Since they start to degrade very quickly, larger breweries that make fresh hop beer, such as Sierra Nevada (they make a whole line of fresh hop beers), have to have their hops flown in by next-day air.
Other breweries that are closer to hop farms just drive there and fill up giant bags, which sounds a bit more environmentally friendly, if not as glamorous and dramatic. As if that weren’t enough, fresh hop beers themselves also have a short shelf life, although it’s a bit longer than 24 hours. The best time to drink these ephemeral brews is during the month of October, right after the harvests in August and September.
While you might think that fresh hop beer would give hop heads the ultimate IBU fix, the opposite is true. With aromas and flavors described as floral, piney, and grassy, fresh hop beer takes advantage of the volatile aroma and flavor compounds within the hop cones that normally would disappear as they're dried. The hop flavor in these ephemeral beers also tends to be softer than their counterparts made with dried varieties. Most fresh hop beer is made into a pale ale or IPA, although you’ll find other styles as well.
Because they taste best when they’re fresh, if you want to have the best experience, you'll need to drink them close to the source. It’s a great excuse to find a brewery near you and see if they make a fresh hop beer that you can try right around harvest time. But if you don’t live near a brewery that makes this delicious seasonal style or want to plan a beer-themed trip, Washington and Oregon boast many breweries featuring fresh hop ales, as well as festivals celebrating the seasonal brew.