In late summer to early fall, hops are harvested from their vines. For the most part, these hops are saved for use throughout the year and even for subsequent years. They are pelletized or stored as whole leaf hops. Part of this process for storage is drying them. In the past years, however, some brewers have taken a new approach towards this time of year. They will use these hops fresh of the vine.
What this means is they will have hops shipped overnight from the source to their brewery. The faster the better, as well. You need to use these fresh hops within 24 hours of being picked. Most hops for the US market are produced in the Yakima Valley in Washington State. You can see how this would be a lot of effort for a beer. Also, brewers have to use a lot more hops by weight than usual, as hops lose up to 80% of their weight in the drying process.
A fresh hop beer when done right, though, is completely worth this extra work. It adds extra layers of hop taste and aroma. Much more floral, this is a brew that features hops as a flavor and smell, instead of mostly bitterness. A light malt base is all you really need with a lot of late hops. These work best as Pale Ales, in our opinion, as anything bigger or more bitter starts to overwhelm the fresh hop character.
Since hops are produced mainly in the Pacific Northwest of the United States, you see them much more up there. Living in Massachusetts, we get precious few. We have, however, grabbed all that we could find and tasted them for your benefit. And, without further ado, here are the fresh hop beers!
Port Brewing High Tide Fresh Hop IPA
Appearance: Hazy Dirty Orange Fluffy White Head
Smell: Fresh Hops...is that really a surprise?
Taste: A bit sweet, a lemony citrus flavor comes through quickly. Notes of the alcohol come through, unfortunately not in a pleasing way. A bit too bitter on the back end with not enough finishing hops to round out the flavor.
Overall: Not our favorite. It's got a one dimensional lemony hop character that isn't very pleasing, and the alcohol comes through in a strange way. You taste an unpleasant and muddled bitterness in the back of your mouth. We expected more coming from Port Brewing.
Sierra Nevada Harvest Fresh Hop Ale
Appearance: Redish amber, thick off white head
Smell: Hoppiest of them all very fresh smelling, piney aroma
Taste: No doubt this is a Sierra Nevada beer. What up cascade?! While very good, it doesn't have that fresh hop feel that the Great Divide did. That aside, $5 for a a 24oz beer this good is a deal and it still has a more complex and rewarding flavor than a typical pale ale or ipa. In Sierra Nevada Fashion it is a bit more bitter than most on the backend, but it's exactly what you'd expect.
Overall: This is a very good beer. We got pretty excited for it as Sierra Nevada makes great hoppy beers such as Celebration and Bigfoot Barleywine. This was excellent, but we'd hoped for absolutely astounding. Maybe we went in with expectations too high, it is Sierra Nevada afterall. That said, though, it's what the High Tide should taste like...at half the cost. We'll will drink this a lot before it's gone from the shelves. It's much easier to find than the Great Divide and nearly as good.
Great Divide Fresh Hop Pale Ale
Appearance: Clear amber, thicker off white head
Smell: Clean resiny hop aroma, less hop aroma than the Port High Tide, but a much cleaner smell
Taste: Sweet Sassy Molassy that's good! Just enough up front bitterness followed by delicious citrus notes and fantastic hop spiciness. The late hop additions are quite apparent in the beer and add a very nice depth. It has a very nice multidimensional flavor that makes you excited for each sip. It's clean, it's hoppy and has just the right bitterness to allow all the flavors to come through. The malt takes a back seat to the hops, but in a way that's balanced. The hops are the headliner, but the malt sets the show as a great warm up band (sorry we're musicians too, we make corny references sometimes).
Overall: This is a great beer! We'd love to session some Great Divide Pale Ale any day! This beer makes us sad that fresh hop beers are only seasonal. Whatever we taste next is going to have a tough act to follow.