The buzz on this night in late September, however, is more anticipatory and frenzied than the usual clamor that dominates the local hangout. The seven-week period surrounding the month of September marks a special time for both Pacific Northwest brewers and beer lovers alike - it's the hop harvest season.
With the hop harvest comes fresh hop beers, the likes of which are impossible to replicate during any other time of the year, given that the hops used in the brewing process are harvested only hours beforehand. Generally, to be considered a "fresh hop beer" brewers must add the harvested hops to the wort (beer that has not yet been fermented) within 24 hours of the harvest. As summer fades into autumn, this highly anticipated window is celebrated annually by the throngs of beer fans who relish in the earthy, fruity, floral flavors imparted by the fresh hops.
Though hops have been favored by brewers for centuries both for their ability to stabilize beers and the bitter flavor they provide, fresh hop or wet hop beers are a relatively new trend in the world of craft brewing. The hops most brewers use on a regular basis have been preserved by a high-heat drying process, a process that boils off most of the hops' aromatics. Once dried, hops can be stored for later use. Perhaps surprisingly, the drying process also makes the hops safe for transport and storage as the high moisture content of the resin-loaded fresh hops can cause the bundled plants to spontaneously combust, says 10 Barrel Brewing brewmaster Jimmy Seifrit.
While walking through the fields of hop farms, Seifrit says he's always struck with the same feeling.
"How great would it be if we could capture this flavor?" says Seifrit, who has more than 15 years of experience in the beer industry.
Thankfully, brewmasters across the Northwest and beyond have figured out how to do just that.
Making a fresh hop beer is fairly similar to traditional brewing methods that call for hops dried in a kiln. The biggest difference, aside from the freshly harvested hops, is the volume of hops used. A dried hop cone has a moisture content of roughly 10 percent, whereas the fluffy, sticky bud of a wet hop pulled straight from the vine has 45 percent more moisture content. While standard India pale ales might require 1.5 pounds of hops, a fresh hop version might call for 10 pounds of hops, for example.
Timing is everything with fresh hop beers. Oregonians are fortunate in that they live in close proximity to the two largest hop-growing regions in the country, Yakima, Wash., and the Willamette Valley, respectively. When local brewers get the call that the hops are being harvested and will soon be ready for pickup, the race is on to get to the farm, retrieve the hops and quickly get them into the brewing tank. Once home, the hops are added to the beer that is already in production and steeped in the wort (much like steeping a bag of tea leaves in hot water) as it prepares to leave the kettle.
Driving over to the hop farms has become a favorite annual ritual for regional brewers.
"It's an event, something special. It's like New Year's for brewers," says Seifrit.
Often local brewers will team up on their trips to the valley. This year, Three Creeks Brewing, Silver Moon Brewing and 10 Barrel Brewing all used Centennial Hops from B. Crosby Hop Farm in Woodburn for at least some of their seasonal creations. In fact, Seifrit drove over to the farm in late August, picked up the hops for all three breweries, and distributed the harvest on his way back to town. Buying straight from the farmer has the added benefit of saving the brewers some money since they don't have to pay a hop broker for storage.
A common misconception, or fear if you're not a hop fan, is that fresh hop beers are off-the-charts bitter and boast astronomical international bitterness unit measurements (IBU). That's not true. Though it can be difficult to accurately gauge the IBUs of harvest style beers, since the fresh hops have yet to be analyzed, the Chainbreaker White IPA from Deschutes sports a relatively mild 50 IBUs and has a tame 5.1 percent alcohol by volume rating. Silver Moon's Tyler Reichert likens the use of fresh hops in beers to using fresh basil from the garden while making homemade marinara sauce, rather than the dried version of the herb.
Fresh hop beers can certainly span a spectrum of flavors and styles. While most all of the local breweries are pouring their own tasty, fresh hop style beers, here are a few for your consideration: Deschutes' malty fresh hop Oktoberfest (39 IBUs, 4.5 percent ABVs); Silver Moon's Hoppopotomus fresh hop ale (unknown IBUs, 6.5 percent ABVs); and 10 Barrel's English-style Nuggets of Wisdom fresh hop IPA (62 IBUs, 6.23 percent ABV).
Like many craft brews, fresh hop beers aren't quite as good after they've sat and been exposed to more oxygen. Once on tap, these harvest beers typically only last until the keg runs dry.
"Drink those beers as fast as possible," says Seifrit.
Who's brewing Fresh Hop beers locally?
Here's where to get yours
10 Barrel Brewing Co.: Crosby Farms Fresh Hop Harvest Ale, Nuggets of Wisdom
Fresh Hop English IPA
Cascade Lakes Brewing Co.: Harvest Ale Fresh Hop
Deschutes Brewery: Chainbreaker White IPA, Fresh Hop Twilight Ale, Fresh Hop Spencer's Gold, Fresh Hop Mirror Pond, Fresh Hop Oktoberfest, Hop Trip, Chasin' Freshies
McMenamins Old St. Francis School Pub: Thundercone
Silver Moon Brewing Co.: HopPototamus Fresh Hop Ale, Fresh Hop Hop Knob IPA
*If a beer is crossed out, that means you missed your chance to taste that particular brew.
Fresh Hop Dinner
Sample the latest fresh hops beers from Deschutes paired with a gourmet seven-course, small plate dinner. Call 541-312-6946 or visit deschutesbrewery.com to reserve a spot.
Fresh Hop Beer Tasting Dinner
Deschutes Brewery, Mountain Room
Saturday, Oct. 22 6pm-10pm