If you take a quick survey of beer blogs and beer events over the last month, there is no doubt that one type of beer has been on everyone’s mind and palate. In the past five years or so, fresh Hop Beers have come to dominate the late summer/early fall draught sales in a way that is truly astonishing. Now that fresh hop season is coming to a close, I’ve had some time to pull my thoughts together about this phenomenon and to assess our fresh hop beers this harvest.
I’ll be the first to admit—these are not my favorite style of beer to drink or to brew, so I’m going to rant a little about them. I find wet hops tempermental, unpredictable, and often underwhelming. It’s easy to find fresh hop beers that have an intense chlorophyll-esque flavor that comes across as tasting like cooked vegetables or wilted lettuce; while some people love the ‘greenness’ of those flavors, I am not one of them. Similarly, when balanced well, the fresh hop flavors are so delicate that they can be obscured by other aggressive flavors in the beer—a strong malt character, aggressive yeast profile, higher alcohols, or even high levels of carbonation. Fermentation itself is an enemy of fresh hop flavor, as the carbon dioxide kicked off during alcohol production literally scrubs out and dulls hop flavor and aroma. I can’t tell you how many awesome tasting partially-fermented, fresh hop beers I’ve had that are only two days old; by the time they’re on tap, they come off as pale imitations of the fresh ‘beer’ they were before. The best fresh hop beers I’ve had (such as Deschutes Fresh Hop Mirror Pond) tend to use fresh hops only on the ‘cold side,’ that is after fermentation is complete.
Then there is the scheduling issue: most of the year, we set our brewing calendar on a fairly predictable clock. Part of good fermentation management is knowing exactly how your yeast is going to perform on every beer, so we can reliably expect to brew IPA every 12 days at Breakside, racking the finished beer into kegs the same day that we prepare a new batch. This system works well given that it really allows us to maximize production, something that matters when you’re brewing on a system as small as ours! With fresh hops, you often don’t know when the hops are going to actually be harvested until 48 hours ahead of time. From a scheduling point of view, this is a major nuissance, since you have to keep fermentors open that would otherwise be used for making beer. With this year’s harvest, for example, the Citra crop got pushed back two times. This led to less beer getting brewed, which is negative for business and customers both. Finally, I believe that since brewers only have the chance to work on these beers once a year, we get less practice, opportunity for improvement, or ability to develop expertise than with other types of recipes.
OK, enough complaining. I hope it’s clear that what I really mean to say is that Fresh Hop beers pose a unique challenge to brewers, and despite my reservations, I embrace the challenge of working with an ingredient that is this difficult. In an effort to learn as much as we could about brewing with fresh hops, we released three beers in the style this season. What follows is a discussion of some of our techniques, lessons learned, and thoughts for what we’ll do in the future.
A word, quickly, on what I mean by fresh hop beer: there is a lot of debate amongst brewers and beer fans around the appropriate use of the term ‘fresh hop,’ and I don’t want to rehash those discussions. At Breakside, ‘fresh hop’ (or ‘wet hop’) refers to a beer that uses a significant amount of direct-from-the-farm hops that have not undergone the typical drying and baling process for most hops. We consider beers that use dried hops in addition to ‘fresh hops’ to qualify as fresh hop beers.
The first of our three beers this year was our Wet Hop Simcoe IPA. Last year we made a Wet Hop Simcoe Pale Ale that was brewed with 100% fresh hops, and our original plan was to do that again this year. Unfortunately, the timing of the harvest worked out such that we ended up making a slightly stronger version of the beer and did include two doses of pelletized Simcoe hops in the kettle. We added the fresh hops in three stages for this beer. First, we added some hops to the mash. I believe that this helps lower the pH of the finished beer, which also reduces bitterness. I don’t really know if mash hopping has any effect on flavor or aroma in the finished beer, but every beer we’ve made that uses this technique does have a nice, rounded finish and lower perceived bitterness than you might expect from a hop-forward beer. Then, we did a second addition of hops by using the mash tun as a giant hopback, transferring the wort out of the kettle onto the hops, before pumping over to our fermentor. Finally, the beer was fermented directly on fresh Simcoe hops throughout fermentation. We were happy with this beer, though like I said before, the intensity of the fresh hop flavor dropped dramatically during fermentation itself. The finished beer had a subtle hop aroma, with a nice strong Simcoe flavor especially on the midpalate. This beer proved wildly popular on draught and disappeared within 10 days.
Up next was our International Way APA, an American pale ale made with fresh Amarillo hops. This was our most experimental approach to using fresh hops, as we did multiple infusions of fresh hops (using the mash-tun-as-hopback technique described above) into the wort at different temperatures before it reached a boil. This was loosely an attempt to use ‘first wort hopping’ as the main source of hop flavor. The beer then got an additional charge of Amarillo flavor and aroma through dry hopping. Interestingly, we did not boil all of the wort for this beer (everything was ‘sterilized’ by getting above 185 deg F), and I do think that this approach helped retain some additional hop character that would have been otherwise lost. But this was my least favorite of our three fresh hop beers, largely because I think we made a misstep in designing the malt bill for the recipe. We used Simpsons Golden Promise, a beautiful malt from the UK that is the pale base for our Dry Stout. Compared to many other base malts, it is very characterful, sweet and nutty. We use it predominantly in darker beers, where some of the base character is neutralized by all of the roast and dark malt character around it, but in this delicately hopped beer, the malt flavor sort of overran the Amarillo notes. Lesson learned.
The final of our three beers, which is still currently available, is the one I consider to be our finest achievement this year: Fresh Hop Citra Double IPA is a wheat-based double IPA (aka ‘wheatwine’) that uses the same aroma hop which dominates our flagship Breakside IPA. In this case, we stuck with a single, brief infusion of fresh Citra hops in the mash tun between the boil and pumpover to the fermentors. The beer did use some dried Citra hops in the kettle for bitterness as well. We thought that using a large quantity of Citra hops for a very brief contact time would maximize extraction of flavors. Tasting the wort as it began to ferment, I thought we had a real winner on our hands. Unfortunately, as happened with the Simcoe IPA, the hop flavor started dissipating as we hit the third and fourth day of fermentation. It was a nice double IPA, but it didn’t scream ‘fresh hop’ in any obvious way. There was some nice, green Citra character that seemed to be sticking on the mid palate, but aromatically this beer needed help. We settled on two separate dry hop additions—one while the beer was still warm, the other after it had been cooled down to 35 degrees F. The resultant beer has a tremendous, sticky bouquet of stonefruit and citrus, complex early hop flavors, a round palate thanks to the wheat and higher alcohols, and a flavorful, fresh hop (earthy/green) finish.
As I said, the reason we did made three fresh hop beers this year was for personal and professional edification. Sam, Jacob, Andrew and I wanted to see what really works (and doesn’t work) when it comes to dealing with fresh hops. Next year, I think that we’ll still continue to use the mash tun as a hopback, rely on dry hopping when necessary, and occasionally do some mash hopping. We’ll ditch characterful base malts, fermentor hopping, and first wort additions with fresh hops. I’d also like to try doing ‘cold side’ (ie brite tank) dry hopping with fresh hops, like Deschutes has done with some of its beers. I think that this has the ability to extract and retain more of the classic harvest flavor that customers seek in these beers. I’d also like to try and make exclusively lower alcohol fresh hop beers to test if beers with less carbon dioxide production retain the hop character better. Finally, I wonder whether using German spunding techniques, where a tank is sealed before fermentation is complete to allow the beer to naturally carbonate would help retain some of these aromas.
If you’ve tasted our fresh hop beers and have thoughts on what you liked and didn’t, let us know. We’ve got a whole eleven months to plan the 2013 batch of Breakside Fresh Hop, and we want to take on that challenge with even greater success next time around!