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Hoptown Girl: Falling for fresh hop beers

Posted: October 16th, 2010 | Bars & Happy Hours, Food & Drink | No Comments

Lastowka Star B Ranch hops are decorative and make beer taste mighty good.

By Lauren Duffy/ SDUN Columnist

Whoever claims that we don’t get to experience the seasons in San Diego hasn’t thought about beer. When fall rolls in, we might not get leaves that change color or a briskness in the air, but we do get something extra special on taps around town: fresh hops.

Fresh-hop, or wet-hop, beer is made once a year, to coincide with the annual hop harvest. Hops, which add bitterness, stability, flavor and aroma to beer, are the female flower of a plant called humulus lupulus. The perennial vines (called bines) produce flowering cones that peak in late summer, when they are harvested exclusively for use in beer. The majority of hops are dried and vacuum sealed for use year-round, but every year a small percentage of the harvest is used fresh.

For a fresh-hop beer to happen is no small feat. A brewery has to coordinate with a hop farm to arrange for hops to be picked, transported, delivered and brewed within a span of one to two days. The oils and acids in hops—which are responsible for their aromas, flavors and bitterness—break down when exposed to light, heat, and oxygen, so hops are at their peak the moment they leave the vine.

This means that during wet hop season, time is of the essence. Once they are picked, hops are shipped as quickly as possible to allow the brewer to use the hop in its freshest form. While there are some hops grown in Southern California, most hops in the U.S. come from the Pacific Northwest. So for breweries like Port Brewing, this means arranging for an entire trailer of hops to be driven down overnight from a hop farm in Yakima, Wash. When it arrives, it’s all hands on deck. “We brew continuously until it’s gone,” said Port Brewing’s Sage Osterfeld of the 1100 pounds of fresh hops that arrived this year to make the brewery’s annual High Tide Fresh Hop IPA.

If an entire tractor trailer of hops seems like a lot, it is. Hops in their fresh form are about 80 percent water, which means that brewers use anywhere between four and eight times as many hops as the dried versions they use the rest of the year. Yet despite the massive increase in hop quantity, fresh hop beers are actually more subtle and delicate than their dried hop counterparts. “I really like the flavors of the wet hop beers, since the enormous amount of hops that are used in these beers give them a very different feel,” said Tom Nickel of O’Brien’s Pub in Kearny Mesa. “The hop flavors are more earthy and grassy with nice spice notes and even a little resiny in the finish.”

There is only one time a year when you can experience these beers and the time is now. Many are such special releases that they aren’t even bottled; the few that are distributed in bottles are designed to be enjoyed immediately.

If you’re interest is piqued, your best chance to sample these beers is to head to Kearny Mesa October 22–24, for O’Brien’s annual Wet Hop Festival. The bar will have 20-25 wet hop beers on tap, including seven made locally. There will also be several cask beers that have been cask-conditioned with wet hops, including local casks from Mission Brewing and Stone Brewing Co. The festival officially runs Friday through Sunday, although Nickel plans to tap several fresh-hop casks Thursday evening.

If you can’t make it to O’Brien’s, keep an eye out for fresh-hop beers in taps and bottles around town. If you see one, go for it—these truly are a seasonal opportunity that doesn’t last long. When you have a glass in front of you, take a moment to enjoy and savor the fruits of this year’s hop harvest. And next time someone brings up San Diego’s lack of seasons, make sure to recount your experience with fresh-hop beers.  

High Tide Fresh Hop IPA, Port Brewing

This beer pours clear and unhazy with a gorgeous gold hue. The nose is subtle and refined, and if anything a hint of sweetness wafts up from the glass. On the palate it is well balanced and smooth, with subtle hints of lemon and tangerine. The flavors are mild, gentle, and clean—this is an easily drinkable beer, especially for its 6.5 percent alcohol content. There’s a hint of bitterness but it’s mild and balanced, most pronounced at the finish. This is an outstanding example of a fresh hop beer. It’s available in 22-oz bottles and taps around town. Snatch it up quick when you find it—the production was just 300 barrels so it won’t be around long.

Monster Mash Cascadian Dark Ale, San Diego Brewing Company

Monster Mash is unique among San Diego fresh hop beers this year in that it is made with local hops. Ken Childs of Star B Ranch and Hop Farm believes this is the only wet hop beer to be made with their Cascade and Nugget hops this year. It is also one of the more unique wet hop beers I’ve seen. As a Cascadian Dark Ale, also known as a black IPA, the beer is quite malty for a fresh-hop beer. On first pour, a jet black color gives way to a delicate yet distinct hop aroma. In fact, the first whiff smells like heaven–like sticking your nose in a bag full of fresh Cascade hops. The flavor takes a sharp transition on the palate, where bitterness takes a back seat to roasted malt, coffee undertones, and even a hint of root beer. This creamy, 7 percent ABV beer is available on tap only, although growler fills are available at San Diego Brewing Company for $17 ($14 if you already own the growler.)

Schooner Fresh Hop Ale, Ballast Point Brewing Company

Ballast Point’s tasting room was all out of Schooner when we were working on this piece, but this is a beer worth seeking out. The brewery used Cascade hops sent overnight from Washington as well as some unmalted barley to craft this six percent fresh hop ale. If you missed a chance to try it in the weeks it was available at the tasting room, the brewery has plans to re-debut a few kegs during San Diego Beer Week in November.

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