A-brew-cadabra: The magic of fresh-hopped beers

B.C. Hop Fest (Sept. 30) features fresh-hopped creations from 36 craft breweries. Contributed photo

B.C. Hop Fest (Sept. 30) features fresh-hopped creations from 36 craft breweries. Contributed photo

There’s something truly magical about a fresh-hopped beer. In terms of flavour, the use of fresh hops – that is, hops that have been picked that day and put immediately into the brew – imparts wonderfully floral aromatics and intense bright flavours.

But that’s only part of the appeal.

Because fresh-hopped beers need to be brewed immediately upon harvesting the hops, there’s only a narrow window in which to make them – three to four weeks in September at most.

The compounds that produce those incredible aromatics are also incredibly volatile, so fresh-hopped beers have to be drunk as fresh as possible. Once it’s a couple weeks old, all that magic is gone.

“The absolute seasonality of fresh-hopped beers is so, so awesome,” says Iain Hill, brewmaster at Strange Fellows Brewing in Vancouver. “You have to make it the day it’s picked… and then you have two weeks to drink it and that’s it. It lives for such a short time.”

While many people associate hoppy beers with the intense bitterness of West Coast IPAs, fresh-hopped beers don’t have that burn.

“The hop flavour is more intense and perfume-y, but it’s not more bitter,” Hill explains.

Traditionally, hops are kiln-dried, then pelletized, vacuum-sealed and frozen to extend their shelf life, that way brewers can brew with hops year-round. The trade-off, though, is that some of the volatile compounds responsible for the intense aromatics can be lost.

The key to capturing the essence of the fresh hop is a tricky process, however. Along with those intense flavour brewers want, fresh hops can also bring tannins and other compounds that can give a beer a vegetal flavour, if you’re not careful. (Imagine soggy green pepper that’s been left in the fridge for a week. Yuck!)

More often then not, fresh-hopped beers fall somewhere on the pale ale or IPA spectrum. Hills says he prefers them to be well-attenuated, with little residual sweetness and malt character, in order to provide a blank canvas for the hops.

“It’s all about the hops,” he says, “so you don’t want anything competing with those flavours.”

Since the hops have to go into the brew immediately, brewers are forced to use hops that are grown nearby. In the case of Strange Fellows’ Hopdevil, the Cascade hops Hill uses are picked early in the morning at Maple Bay Hop Farm on Vancouver Island, sent over on the ferry, and by the early afternoon they are added to the brew.

Weather conditions have a huge impact on harvest times, so Hill might only get a couple days’ notice that his hops are coming, if he’s lucky.

“You have to be ready for them when they get here,” he says.

By forcing brewers to source their hops locally, fresh-hopped beers are amongst the best examples of terroir in craft beer.

“You can’t use Vic Secret, or some fruity Australian hop; you have to go local,” Hill says. “That allows you to make something that’s pretty unique and it’s a great way to connect with the land.”

For the most part, you’re only going to find fresh-hopped beers like Strange Fellows’ Hopdevil in the tasting room. Driftwood was the first B.C. craft brewery to offer a bottled fresh-hopped beer with its Satori Harvest IPA, but, if you’re lucky enough to snag a bottle, make sure you drink it immediately!

There is a third option, however. Go to the source!

Donna Dixson is the brains behind the B.C. Hop Fest, which takes place Sept. 30 in Abbotsford, on an actual working hop farm. The festival features 36 B.C. craft breweries, each pouring a fresh-hopped creation, so it’s easily the best place to experience the magic of this ephemeral beer.

“It’s a pretty unique experience, because it’s right on the farm, so you can see where the hops come from,” says Dixson. There will be farm tours, displays on the history of hop production in the Fraser Valley (which used to be one of the largest hop-producing regions on Earth!), live music, food, vendors selling hop-related products, the whole works.

Not surprisingly, people from across North America flock to the event. This year, 1,500 people are expected to attend.

“Like a Beaujolais Nouveau, fresh-hopped beer is something you can only get once a year,” Dixson says. “And once it’s gone, it’s gone!”
• B.C. Hop Fest takes place Saturday, Sept. 30, 1- 6 p.m., 1905 Cole Road, Abbotsford, B.C. Tickets $33.25 – $70

The Fall 2017 issue of the Growler is out now! You can find B.C.’s favourite craft beer guide at your favourite brewery, select private liquor stores, and on newsstands across the province.