Once each year, toward the end of September, there is an unusual site as Oregon brewers in vans and pickups race around the Willamette Valley, leaving a trail of hop cones behind them. The beginning of this trail may start at any of the hop fields that are so prevalent in this area. Following the trail in the opposite direction, you'll wind up at any of several breweries in Portland, but you won't find any hops once you arrive. The trail mysteriously ends at the mashtun. But, you already know where I'm going with this, don't you?

Dried Cascade Hop Cones

Cascade Hops

Don't worry, the hops didn't just disappear, even though the trail went cold. This is hop harvest time, time for the annual fresh hop beers. Although a bit dramatacized above, it is actually a race from the field to the brewery as the brewers attempt to pluck the hops from the vine and use them for brewing as quickly as possible. In this region, there are brewers that have been using fresh hops for seasonal brews for twenty years. So, it's taken awhile to catch on, but each year the number of fresh hop beers available in the U.S. increases dramatically.

The normal practice for a brewery is to have dried hops delivered to their brewery from the growers or distributors. If the hops are whole hop cones, they have been dried and baled. If they are hop pellets, the hop cones are dried and then compressed into small pellets. These hop pellets can be combined with additives to help protect the alpha acids and aid in the utilization of the hop during boil additions. These "enhanced" hops are processed in this way for consistency and ease of use. There are also hop extracts, but whole hops and pellets make up most of the brewing around the world.

Let's take a step back and discuss the use of hops in beer. Sure, in the Northwest, we know "hoppy" beers, but what exactly does this mean? Most of the time, the average drinker will recognize this through the aroma and flavor of the beer. Beer academics will also note the bitterness level, usually classified by International Bittering Units (IBUs). These are the three basic uses of hops when brewing: bitterness, flavor, and aroma. Depending on the chemical makeup of the hops, some are better for bittering, while others are better for flavor and aroma. The brewer can decide how to use the hop by timing the addition of the hops during the standard 60 - 90 minute boil. The basic idea is that the longer the hop is in the boiling wort, the more bitterness it will add. The shorter the hop is in the wort, the more it will add to aroma. The middle ground is for flavor. Depending on how the hop is used by the brewer, there are many different levels of bitterness, and flavor and aroma can range from earthy and grassy to floral and citrusy. Not surprisingly, there are a lot of combinations when you can choose which hops to use, when to use them, and how much to use.

Oregon Brewers Festival 2006
Fresh Hops on the Vine
Now, back to the fresh hops. Why run up Mt. Hood or through the Willamette Valley to grab hops off of the vine, run to the brewery, and brew a batch of Fresh Hop Ale? Like any plant, hops have different characteristics when alive and on the vine, then they do after drying and processing. Drying the hops will get rid of excess water and leave a more concentrated product. Fresh hops are also known as wet hops because of this. They are basically still "alive" when thrown into the boiling water (contrary to popular belief, you can hear the fresh hops scream as you drop them in the water--they sound like lobsters). Normally, this plant "waste" is dried out of the hops, but with fresh hop ales, it is these characteristics that make a unique brew.

Because these hops aren't dried and concentrated, most brewers use about five times the normal hop quantity to get the desired result. These fresh hops usually lend a more grassy and floral taste and aroma to the beer and most brewers make use of this by showcasing them in an Ale or IPA. Though it's possible to get similar tastes and aromas from dried hop cones and pellets, it's impossible to duplicate these fresh hop ales using traditional brewing techniques.

Luckily, Portland is situated in the Hop Belt. For other brewers that aren't so lucky, they can still make fresh hop beers--but it comes at a price. The Fresh Hop revolution has caught on and brewers like Sierra Nevada and Great Divide are having their fresh hops flown in from our area so that they can offer a fresh hop ale as well. There seems to be twice as many fresh hop offerings this year as there were last year--and let's hope that this trend continues.