And Then There Were Fresh Hops

Article by Jeff Alworth | Featured on Willamette Week | Photos by Willamette Week

Why Oregon is central to the most important beer trend of the last decade.

Editor’s note: Last month, internationally known Portland beer writer Jeff Alworth released his magnum opus, The Beer Bible. It’s only a slight stretch to say the 720-page tome had its genesis here at WW when Arts & Culture editor Audrey Van Buskirk hired a young freelancer named Jeff Alworth to write a beer column titled “Mash.”

For some reason, the publisher was prickly about WW‘s request to reprint the chapter on fresh-hop ales from the best-seller.

Alworth was kind enough to provide us with an Oregon-centric retelling of the fresh-hop phenomenon. You should still buy a copy of The Beer Bible.

Given the speed at which things change in the beery landscape, fresh-hop ales count as old news. Something just shy of 10 years ago they started to be a major annual event—in local terms, they’re older than Breakside, the Commons and Gigantic, just to illustrate their relative fustiness. I wouldn’t doubt that many local beer lovers are greeting this year’s batch with blasé half-interest. Let me tell you something, though: Those of us in the Pacific Northwest are exceedingly fortunate. Not only are fresh-hop ales a rarity outside our region, but most beer drinkers have never even heard of them. Not only that, their arrival coincides with—and serves as a perfect example of—the emergence of a new approach to craft brewing.

Each fall, scores of breweries in Washington and Oregon make hundreds of beers with freshly picked, undried hops. This is possible here—and nowhere else—because nearly all of the Western Hemisphere’s commercial hops are grown in Oregon and Washington. As the name implies, in these kinds of ales, freshness is critical. While they still have an electric current of life animating their flavors and aromas, these emerald cones are spirited back to a brewery for use in a beer. Every minute they spend off the bine, that current grows weaker.

Portland breweries can get just-harvested hops into their beers just an hour or two after they’re plucked—giving us a huge advantage over other cities. Even Seattle is more than twice as far from Washington’s hop fields in Yakima. If you want fresh hops, you have to get them at the source—and consequently, most people have never encountered one.

Despite the fact that hops have been used in beers for a thousand years, the fresh-hopping appears to be quite recent—dating back only to 1992. And it took several years before any Americans took up the idea.

The earliest record we have suggests the Wadworth brewery, a regional operation in Southern England, was the first to make such a beer. There are whispers about an American brewery that may have done it earlier, but no hard evidence that I’ve found suggests anyone made a fresh hop before Wadworth, which is in Devizes, about 90 miles west of London.

The head brewer at the time, Trevor Holmes, got the inspiration while watching the autumn harvest, wondering what green hops would taste like in a batch of beer. Holmes is retired, but Wadworth’s current brewer, Brian Yorston, describes the brewery’s practice, which has not changed in 23 years.

“A Wadworth employee is dispatched on the given date, predawn, to get to the farm by 6 to collect [the] hops,” Yorston says. “He returns to Devizes so that by 9:30 the first of two coppers can receive the hops. This timing is very critical. In 2008, I decided personally to do the hop run; I made the mistake of stopping for a cup of coffee on the way back, only to find a posse of brewery operators standing by the gate waiting impatiently for my arrival.”

By 1996, California’s Sierra Nevada Brewing and the now-defunct Yakima brewery Bert Grant’s were making one. The first fresh-hop beer we can find record of in Oregon was brewed by Karl Ockert in 2002 at BridgePort, which added Crystal hops from Sodbuster Farms in Salem to his hopback. This was still in the dark ages of American brewing. We were drinking pale, amber and wheat ales then, and the vivid hoppiness that came to characterize American brewing was only just being born. As fresh-hop ales began their slow move toward the mainstream, American brewers used them roughly the same way they did regular hops—and very much the same way Yorston described Wadworth’s process.

American brewing is something of a European pastiche, borrowing heavily from the English tradition. From the birth of craft brewing through the late 1990s, Americans made ales in very much the way the English do. They made stronger beers, used American hops, and more of them, and didn’t cotton to cask ale the way the Brits do. But in the mechanics of brewing, the processes looked quite similar. For those first few decades, Americans dosed their beers with heavy loads of bittering hops and accentuated them lightly with aroma hops, just as the British do.

In a pint of beer, the sensation we call “hoppiness” is a collection of qualities that includes bitterness, aroma and flavor—but these qualities were initially beside the point. The reason hops have become an integral part of the brewing process is because breweries realized they helped inhibit microbial action that otherwise spoiled beer. They learned to boil their beer to draw out these antimicrobial properties, and nearly every beer style on the planet leans heavily on bittering hops for this reason, even in styles where the beer is not very bitter. When brewers add hops later in the process, either during the boil or afterward, hops’ other properties are revealed. They give those intense flavors we have come to associate with modern IPAs: citrus, pine, mango, cedar, and so on.

How do fresh hops fit into this picture? Their use coincided with the shift from bittering to aroma hops. At about the same time breweries were realizing they could still make intensely hoppy beers without making them face-meltingly bitter, they were also starting to experiment with fresh hops.

Fresh hops are to dried hops what fresh basil is to dried. They’re more vivid and green—more alive. Hops contain more than 400 compounds, and it appears that some of these are lost or changed during the drying process. Fresh hops have bright, unusual flavors not present in their dried forms. Indeed, identifying even familiar strains is difficult because they taste so much different when fresh. They express their vintage and terroir more, so fresh Cascade hops from Goschie Farms in Silverton may not taste the same in 2015 as they did in 2014, and they may also taste different than the fresh Cascade hops from Sodbuster Farms just down the road in Salem.

But here’s the thing: They’re not so great for bittering. They seem to get cooked in a way dry hops don’t and often produce vegetal flavors like boiled cabbage. Fresh-hop beers became a pretty big thing starting in 2007, and at first brewers felt, like Wadworth, that they should go “into the coppers,” as the wort-boiling vessel is known. However, they quickly realized that fresh hops should be added late in the process, especially when added to the beer after fermentation—what brewers call dry-hopping. Used this way, they supercharge the hoppy goodness without adding any bitterness.

Oregon has long been on the forefront of this kind of brewing. I was recently talking to Breakside’s Ben Edmunds about modern hoppy ales, and he said, “Frankly, it’s not a secret, but all the brewers who make these award-winning beers—everyone [uses late hops]. Those [bittering] hops are basically for kettle performance.” When you travel to other countries now, you see the word “American” applied to a lot of beer—and when they use our country as an adjective, this is what they’re talking about.

We still have it better than the rest of the world, though, because fresh hops offer flavors dried ones can’t. It’s like going to 11, or finding an extra hoppy gear. And while a few breweries have fresh hops delivered overnight to their breweries (a travesty), basically no breweries outside the Pacific Northwest have access to these amazing beers or the knowledge to brew them properly. There are newer beer trends, yes, but few so completely unique to us. So grab a pint—it’s the flavor of the season here in Portland, and precious few other places on earth.

Oregon’s First Freshie

As best we can tell from talking to a half-dozen people involved in craft beer in the early 2000s, these are photos of the first fresh-hop beer ever brewed in Oregon.

Pictured is Karl Ockert, then brewmaster of BridgePort and now at Deschutes, with fresh Crystal hops from Sodbuster Farms in Salem.

If these photos are from 2002—the director of the Oregon Brewers Guild, beloved former Oregonian beer writer John Foyston and Ockert all think it is—then BridgePort probably would have made the third fresh-hop beer brewed in the United States—if you count Sierra Nevada, which made its first “wet hop” beer in 1996, using undried hops sent by UPS Next Day Air. 

The very first American fresh-hop beer? That came from the very first modern brewpub, the now-shuttered Bert Grant’s in Yakima, Wash., the heart of hop country.

“We had two ex-Grant’s brewers working for us, and one early-fall day they were talking about how it was the time of year they would brew a fresh-hop brew in Yakima,” says Ockert. “I got to thinking, ‘Geez, we are only 35 miles from the hop fields and we have a hopback—let’s do it.’ And we did! It’s the ultimate seasonal beer, sort of brew nouveau for beer.”

Breweries like Grain Station, Full Sail and Deschutes followed close behind.

“We brewed Hop Trip here at Deschutes last week with Crystal hops from Goschie Farms in Silverton, and Steiner Hops is picking Lemon Drop hops in Yakima for our Chasin’ Freshies right now,” says Ockert. “We are truly blessed to live and brew here in the Pacific Northwest.” MARTIN CIZMAR.


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