It could start in mid-August or the first weekend of September. Whenever hops reach maturity in the lush fields of the Pacific Northwest, their full, ripe flowers filling the air with a sweet bouquet, farmers must bound into action: Sleep be damned, it’s time to pluck the perennial plants’ fragrant blooms.
Working around the clock, farmers and workers slice down towering bines and send them through machines that separate flat leaves (which are discarded) from round cones. Normally, hops are sent directly to a kiln and dried, saving them from spoilage. That’s because harvested hops have a volatile nature, and their aromas and flavors rapidly fade, kind of like just-cut grass.
But during that brief window, ideally within 24 hours of plucking, brewers can use the moist hops to create the ephemeral embodiment of fall, the fresh-hop ale. Because the undried hops have a delicate, almost green character, they’re best employed in pale ales, which serve as a perfect podium for the bounty of the harvest. Consider fresh-hop ales the beer-world equivalent of Beaujolais nouveau wine.
The style’s creation can be credited to Sierra Nevada Brewing Company. Following a farmer’s suggestion, in 1996 the brewery used fresh Cascade and Centennial hops to craft its Harvest Ale. From there, the fresh-hop movement was off and running, with the burgeoning style championed by Pacific Northwest breweries such as Oregon’s Deschutes, Full Sail, and Hopworks UrbanBrewery. That’s because more than 140 of the state’s breweries are located within 150 miles of the hops fields of Oregon and eastern Washington’s Yakima Valley, where three-quarters of America’s hop crops are grown.
Still, this style is no regional specialty. In Virginia, Blue Mountain Brewery uses the first 150 pounds of Cascade hops picked from its bines to craft a celebratory ale, while Minnesota’s Brau Brothers makes its Hundred Yard Dash Fresh Hop Ale with up to 11 different hop varieties harvested from its hop yard.
No farm? No problem for Denver’s Great Divide. It charters a truck with two drivers, having them drive directly from a Washington farm to the brewery, where a batch of Fresh Hop Pale Ale awaits the flowers’ arrival.
When picking a cheese to pair with a fresh-hop ale, keep in mind that you don’t want to overwhelm the grassy, delicate beer. Seek a creamy camembert such as Minnesota’s rich and grassy Alemar Bent River or the clean, buttery, and caramel-hinted version from Colorado’s MouCo Cheese. A stronger fresh-hop IPA is suited to cheddars such as Beecher’s nutty, slightly crumbly Flagship Reserve or Montgomery’s Farmhouse Cheddar, a grassy, fruity gem from England
No matter which cheese you choose, don’t dawdle. When fall departs, so will fresh-hop beers.
FIVE TO TRY
Sierra Nevada Brewing Company Estate Ale
The landmark California brewery grows the hops and grains for its biscuity, grapefruit-focused estate ale. There’s subtle sweetness, with a touch of earth and toast.
Surly Brewing Wet
Minnesota’s Surly turns to pungent American hops (tropical Citra and piney, woody Simcoe) to create this resinous sipper that’s sold in 16-ounce cans.
Tommyknocker Brewery Colorado Nouveau IPA
A bronze winner at the 2012 Great American Beer Festival, this herbal, citrusy IPA is made with flowers from Colorado’s Misty Mountain Hop Farm.
Deschutes Brewery Hop Trip
Come fall, brewers from Bend, Oregon’s Deschutes head to Sodbuster Hop Farm to collect fresh cones, which are used within four hours. the result is a smooth, citrusy pale ale with a gentle malt sweetness.
Founders Brewing Harvest Ale
Registering a robust 7.6 percent ABV, the Michigan brewery’s cloudy-gold Harvest is a juicy, citrusy treat. A touch of toasty malt balances the floral perfume.