Small-batch Pacific Northwest craft beers make the most of this perishable local produce.
September in Seattle brings up visions of tailgate parties, football games, sipping lattes after getting the kids on the school bus, and, for beer lovers, fresh hops.
“This is a special time for local brewers and beer aficionados,” says Otto Han, beer and wine category manager for New Seasons Market, with locations in Ballard and on Mercer Island. “Nearly all American hops are grown right here in the Pacific Northwest and our breweries produce more fresh hop beers than any other region in the world.” And the opportunity to enjoy flavorful and unique fresh hop beers happens just once a year, from mid-August – early October.
Fresh hop beer: The brew of autumn
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Most beer is made using dried hops. Hops grow on vines, are harvested in late summer/early fall, dried, and then shaped into small pellets. The “craft” part of brewing is partially dependent on when the hops pellets are added. Added at the end, hops give the beer its distinctive aromatics. When hops are added during the boil, an earlier step in the brewing process, the oils and aromatics break down and give the beer more bitterness and hoppy flavor, balancing out the sweetness of the malts. Adding hops after the boil, known as “dry hopping,” gives beer an aromatic, hoppy aroma without as much bitterness.
Fresh hop beer is a special taste treat because it’s brewed with wet, whole-cone hops delivered fresh from local farms within 24 hours of harvesting. “It’s literally a race against time to use the wet hops and extract the taste-bud-popping flavors before the cones dry,” Han says.
Fresh hop beers are primarily modeled on pale ale and IPA styles, but have a less bitter flavor than you would find in these beers when they are made with traditional dried hops. The cones have acids, oils and aromatics that impart different flavors to the beer, and would normally become muted or disappear completely during the drying process. There are a variety of nuances in fresh hop beers, depending on the type of hops used, but in general, they are grassy, herbal and bright.
The PNW is a craft beer hub
The Pacific Northwest has become the craft beer hub of the country over the past 20 years, as beer drinkers have become more discerning about fresh, distinct-tasting brews. “Craft beer has come a long way,” says Otto. “In the late ’80s, most people were introduced to craft beer during Oktoberfest celebrations. There have been fads, like pumpkin beers were all the rage 10 years ago, and then we started seeing unique blends that didn’t appeal to everyone — peanut butter and jelly comes to mind. These fads tend to trend and fade, but we believe fresh hops beers are here to stay.”
Small, local craft beer producers, like Fremont and Reuben’s Brews, have been able to capitalize on the regional hop growing tradition and exercise close relationships with hop farmers to use fresh hops directly from the annual harvest. The result: hyper-fresh versions of their popular IPAs and pale ales. You can sample both of these limited edition brews at the Second Annual New Seasons Market Fresh Hop Fest.
New Seasons Market is a neighborhood grocery store that believes great-tasting, local food has the power to build community. Founded in 2000 in Portland, Oregon, New Seasons offers a unique mix of locally sourced and organic items, classic grocery favorites and chef-made meals.