Craft beer nerds know that fresh-hop beer season starts in late August, but some mistakenly think that it ends in early September. Contrary to popular belief, this celebration of beer made with wet, green flowers — instead of the usual dried hops — continues into October. Hops are harvested in Washington and Oregon until mid- to late September. In addition, fresh hops aren’t just dropped into tanks at the end of the brewing process and tapped for fruity, bitter IPAs. Other types of beer like pilsners and farmhouse ales take more time to move from farm to pint.
“There’s a bunch of hype at the beginning of hop season and a whole lot of excitement. Then if people see fresh-hop beer in a brewery two months later, they think this must be old,” said Michael Perozzo of Vice Brewing in Vancouver. “Fresh-hop beer in October is great beer, with some interesting hop varieties.”
Hops are the flowering body of the female Humulus lupulus plant, a member of the Cannabaceae family, which includes hemp. The flowers contain various glands that hold essential oils. Hops preserve beer and add bitterness as well as a broad spectrum of flavors and aromas. Most hops grown in the United States hail from the Pacific Northwest — 75 percent from the Yakima Valley and 20 percent from the Willamette Valley.
Time is of the essence, because fresh hops deteriorate quickly. Fortunately for us, Clark County brewers can drive to the fields, pick up hops, and get them in the tank in a few hours or less.
In Oregon (where many Vancouver brewers get their hops), the season starts with early varieties like Centennial, Strata and Willamette in August and ends with Mosaic, Millennium, Tahoma and other late-harvest plants in the middle of September. The picking window for each hop variety can vary by a few days, but they all have about a five- to seven-day window for harvesting, according to John Coleman of Westwood Farms, a sixth-generation hop farmer in the Willamette Valley.
“The fresher the better,” said Mike DiFabio of Fortside Brewing Co. in Vancouver. “We try to get them into the beer within hours of when they’re picked.”
Most hops are dried in a kiln and then baled or chopped to preserve them. Using these specialty hops freshly picked from the vine adds something that’s hard to pin down.
“Fresh hops have a very fresh-hop flavor that you can’t get from a pellet,” DiFabio said. “There’s not a ton of science about how they are different, but there’s something magical about them.”
DiFabio said the magic of fresh hops goes beyond the special bitterness, flavor and aroma that they add to beer. The relationship between farmer and grower produces something precious and ephemeral. The grower picked these hops especially for a brewer to make a particular beer. The brewer raced to the hop farm and then back to the brewery to get the hops into beer tanks. This connection to the farmer and a freshly picked product is analogous to someone buying a farm share or going to a farmers market to get fresh produce directly from the person who grew it.
Adding fresh hops at different stages of the brewing process produces different results. Hops added at the beginning of the process add bitterness and flavor. Hops added at the end give aroma and flavor. Last year, Fortside brewed a beer with two types of fresh hops added at different points in the brewing process. This year, the brewery used three different types of fresh hops (Willamette, Citra and Cascade) at different stages of the process to create its Fresh Cut IPA. This required several trips to Goschie Farms in Silverton, Ore., as well as careful coordination between Fortside’s head brewer Paul Thurston and fourth-generation farmer Gayle Goschie.
Late-harvest hops are in the works. At Vice Brewing, a pilsner with late-harvest Sterling hops (added at the beginning of the process for bitterness) will be ready in October. Pilsner requires three to five weeks from tank to tap. This is the fourth fresh-hop beer produced this season by the funky, ’80s nostalgia-themed brewery that opened in the space formerly occupied by Barlow’s in Cascade Park.