It's Time For Fresh Hops!

Can you feel it? There's a palpable energy buzzing through the beer community right now, and it happens this time every year. The annual North American hop harvest is about to start, which means that millions of pounds of fresh, piney, citrusy, bitter hops will be picked from their delicate vines and sent to breweries around the country (and the world). It's a big deal, and I love it because it means that breweries will be pumping out some of my absolute favorite beers, packed full of the freshest essential oils and isomerized acids you can find. You probably don't know what I just said, so keep reading.

If you haven't read our background on hops yet, go read that now and come back. The hop-growing industry in our country is robust, but growing hops is a finicky business. There are enormous commercial hop farms that pump out the majority of our lupulus love, but along with these giant projects come thousands of smaller, local hop farms located around the country. In general, breweries try to source their ingredients as locally as possible, and many small-time hop growers have seen huge success because of the demand for their crops from surrounding breweries.

Because they take a few years to root properly, and because they grow relatively slowly, most hops are harvested once a year around this time. In fact, 90% of all commercial hops will be picked and dried in the next few months, to be used throughout the year by local and domestic brewers. You ever wonder how breweries manage to produce great beer all year long? The answer is simple...most of them don't use fresh hops. They use a dried, concentrated version, which still makes great beer, but isn't used directly from the fields.

But sometimes, usually around this time of year, brewer's get access to the headiest, freshest hops coming straight from the farm, and they usually jump on this opportunity to make a fresh-hop beer. Fresh hops, which are slightly differentiated from "wet" hops (wet hops are literally right off the vine and into the brewing process within 24 hours), are freshly harvested and dried whole-cone hops no more than a week old. Brewers love using these hops the same way a chef loves to use fresh food...they taste better. Fresh hops and wet hops can be a little tricky to brew with, as their chemical content is a little unknown when they're not dried and packaged, but modern brewing technology has helped breweries quickly overcome this hurdle and make some amazing beers.

Whatever inspires a brewery to make these beers, I certainly appreciate it. I'm not a die-hard hophead, but I do love a cold, fresh beer bursting with fruity, bright, piney aroma and taste. Be on the lookout for a fresh-hop ale and definitely give it a try when you see it. Odds are it will be a treat. Here's a few of my favorite fresh hop classics from around the country.

1. Celebration Ale - Sierra Nevada Brewing Company - In my book (and most folk's book), one of the original fresh hop beers and still reigning king, Celebration is really f$%king good...nuff said. This is one of the few beers I've run into that everyone likes, which is a rare find indeed.

2. Heavy-Handed IPA - Two Brothers Artisan Brewing - This is an excellent seasonal "wet-hop" beer from this Chicago-area brewery. Not overbearing or brutal, with a back-of-the-mouth dry pallet that makes me shiver with happiness.

3. Fresh Hop IPA - New Belgium Brewing - A perennial classic from New Belgium, I love this beer because it's environmentally responsible and delicious. Not to just feature big craft brewer's at the top of the list, but this is a good'un.

4. Mom and Pops Wet-hop Lager - Jack's Abbey Brewing - Made of 100% Massachussett's ingredients, this is an awesome beer from this lager-focused New England brewery. They might not make this anymore, but they should. It was amazing.

5. Fresh Hop Ale - St. Arnold Brewing Company - These dudes made this beer last year for the first time, and here's hoping they bring it back. It's a session IPA, or hoppy pale ale, or something like that. It's crisp, juicy, and totally unpasteurized, lending an incredible mouthfeel to this beer.

A short list, but I loved them. If you got some suggestions for me, please leave them in the comments below, and keep a lookout in the coming months for fresh hop ales brewed locally near you.

- Chris

Chris McClellan