It can’t quite help but show just how far Paste’s blind style tasting series has come when we do a “smaller” style, get a mere 26 entries, and it feels more or less like a vacation. Hell, even when we did 55 oktoberfest beers or 59 pumpkin ales in the last couple months, those felt like taking it easy after the massive undertaking that was tasting 247 American IPAs. Next month’s style—Christmas/holiday beers—is sure to be a return to huge numbers of entries, so we should probably take advantage of this momentary chance to catch our breath.
In the meantime, we have fresh hop beers. Also known as “wet hop” ales, and sometimes simply as “harvest ales,” all of the terms mean the same thing: That this beer was brewed with freshly picked hops from the 2016 hop harvest, which comes about in October or November, depending on the region and varietal. The basic idea is to use these hops in the boil as soon as possible after they’re picked, making them still “wet” from the field and thus at the peak of their freshness. Such an idea is often at the heart of breweries’ marketing strategies for the beer.
And yet, this can be somewhat deceiving. In the end, “ultra hoppy” isn’t the way one tends to end up describing most fresh hop beers. They can be used in any style (we had saisons, brettanomyces beers, sours, etc.), and in any amount. Some—most, really—are indeed found in hop-forward pale ales and IPAs, but we tasted several malt-forward beers as well that just happened to feature fresh hops. We’re not entirely sure why you would make that kind of beer with fresh hops, but it certainly doesn’t stop enterprising brewers from messing around with the idea.
Likewise, I find that beer drinkers and even beer geeks tend to have a somewhat flawed expectation of what fresh hop beers are going to taste like, especially when they’re touted as featuring hyped hop varietals such as Mosaic and Citra. Rather than being the purest expression of the varietal character one tends to get out of those hops—such as Mosaic’s stone fruit and tropical fruit notes—fresh hops instead tend to give a more pure expression of the hop plant itself. Almost all fresh hop varietals are amped up in terms of their more “green” characteristics: Grassy, resinous, piney, earthy and so on. You might still get some fruit impressions, but they’ll likely be less distinct and harder to classify. Ultimately, fresh hop beers are a reminder of the nature of hops: The flowers of the climbing bine, humulus lupulus.
So let’s get to it, and drink some fresh hop beers!
A Note on Beer Acquisition
Like every other blind-tasting at Paste, we acquire these beers in a variety of ways. Most are sent in directly by the breweries when we send out a call for that style. Others we’re able to purchase directly because they’re available in Georgia. In that sense, we’re at the mercy of what is available, but we were satisfied to assemble a pretty high-quality selection of fresh hop beers.
Rules and Procedure
- We accepted anything sent to us, as long as it involved “fresh hop/wet hop” or “harvest ale” in the description, and we could confirm from the brewery that it was made with hops from the 2016 harvest. There was no specific ABV limit, which didn’t really end up mattering.
- There was no limit of entries per brewery. The beers were separated into daily blind tastings that approximated a sample size of the entire field.
- Tasters included professional beer writers, brewery owners and beer reps. Awesome, style-appropriate glassware is from Spiegelau.
- Beers were judged completely blind by how enjoyable they were as individual experiences and given scores of 1-100, which were then averaged. Entries were judged by how much we enjoyed them for whatever reason.
The Field: Fresh-Hop Beers #’s 26-11
I wasn’t sure quite where to put the ranked vs. unranked cut-off in a tasting with a smaller number of entries than usual, so we simply ranked the top 10. As for The Field, most were quite solid, and quite similar. A lot of the beers below were made in roughly the same sort of style—mid-strength fresh hop beers that featured pleasant green, herbaceous hoppiness. There were some interesting deviations, though, such as Hopworks’ Best of Intentions—a Franco-Belgian saison with fresh Amarillo hops. But in general, we enjoyed both days of tasting.
The beers below are simply listed in alphabetical order, and thus are not ranked. I repeat: These beers are not ranked.
Austin Beerworks Heavy Machinery Fresh-Hop IPA
Breckenridge Brewery Fresh Hop Pale Ale
BridgePort Hop Harvest Ale
Columbus Brewing Co. Yakima Fresh Hop
Double Mountain Brewery Killer Green
Double Mountain Brewery Killer Red
Flying Dog Secret Stash Fresh Hop Ale
Great Divide Fresh Hop Pale Ale
Hopworks Urban Brewery (HUB) Best of Intentions
Roughtail Brewing Co. Adaptation Ale
Short’s Brewing Co. Kind Ale
Sierra Nevada Estate Ale
Silver City Brewing Co. Citra Wet Hop Pale Ale
Terrapin Beer Co. So Fresh & So Green, Green
Tröegs Hop Knife Harvest Ale
Uinta Wet Hop Mosaic Ale
The Finals: Fresh-Hop Beers #10-1
City: Worcester, MA
The verdict: We didn’t realize this growler from Wormtown was an India pale lager (“IPL”) while we were drinking it during the blind tasting, but looking back on it now, it makes sense. It combines the crisp grain and thinner malt body you’d expect with a sizeable charge of hops that trend aggressively toward the dank side of the spectrum. Or to quote one score sheet, “like drinking weed.” Pleasantly funky, with pronounced grassy, piney and slightly catty hop character, it’s a very good example of the type of profile we often imagine when seeing “fresh hop” on the label. It is, indeed, very “fresh” tasting, with a pleasant lemon citrus note trailing all of the greener hop presence, and it drinks significantly lighter than its 6.5% ABV.
City: Bloomington, IN
The verdict: As we wrote above, varietal hop character is somewhat more difficult to get out of fresh than dried hops, but Upland does a good job of actually getting something identifiably “Citra” out of their Citra wet-hopped Harvest Ale. Replete with juicy, musky tropical fruit on the nose, it stands out aromatically from most of the other, more grassy fresh hop beers. A touch of pineapple-like fruitiness and grapefruit juice play nicely with light, grainy malt, while still leaning toward hop-forward rather than abject balance. One of the tasting sheets actually does read “Citra-like,” as one of the tasters guessed the signature hop at play. A good example of a fresh hop beer that retains some hoppy individuality.
City: Hood River, OR
The verdict: Full Sail says that their fresh-hop ale features Magnum hops, a varietal often used by homebrewers for clean bittering rather than in flavor or aroma additions, but here it creates a very pleasant profile. A bit of toasty malt is present in this dry but still hop-forward pale ale, which follows with plenty of resinous, grassy green hops. “Old-school, top-notch IPA” wrote one taster, noting the interplay between moderate malt and hops. This beer hits the center of the bullseye on what we’d typically be expecting out of a fresh hop beer: Green, grassy hops and a very clean malt profile, perfectly balanced in an approachable way. There’s nothing fancy about it; it’s just well executed.
City: El Segundo, CA
The verdict: Wet hop beers can be either assertive or easygoing, but if they’re the latter, we’d prefer they still at least be notably hoppy. El Segundo nails that distinction with their all-Simcoe wet hop pale ale, which layers subtly complex hoppiness on top of minimal malt presence to craft an extremely easy-drinking fresh hop beer that you could easily down, pint after pint. Simcoe is already a bit hard to nail down, sometimes expressing with really funky, catty pine and sometimes with strong citrus, but here you get multiple influences at once. A notable floral note is present, along with some lemon citrus and thyme-like earthiness. Just a touch of biscuity malt holds it all together. Ultra-quaffable, this would be a perfect summer beer, but it goes down just as easily in November.
City: Placentia, CA
The verdict: The newest version of The Bruery’s brettanoymces pale ale is an interesting beast, fresh-hopped exclusively with Mosaic. Hops are obviously the theme here, but you’re certainly not going to notice them first when you stick your nose in the glass. The wild yeast at work are funk-heavy and assertive, providing a complex, intoxicating melange of hay, earthiness and stone fruit. Behind that funk are the hops, which come off with grapefruit citrus and and tropical fruit, juicy and just slightly tart. This isn’t a true sour (unlike the other Bruery beer), as brett doesn’t actually contribute much in the way of tartness on its own, but the pH presumably has been lowered just enough to make those hop flavors seem just a touch more juicy and natural. It’s not quite as in-your-face as The Bruery’s other fresh-hop entry, Humulus Rueuze, but it’s wonderfully nuanced.
City: Grand Rapids, MI
The verdict: Founders Harvest Ale is probably the most reliably great, widely distributed wet-hop ale that one can count on arriving every fall, and there’s a lot of value in that dependability. Every year, it’s always a very pure expression of fresh hops, and 2016 is no different. Resinous green hops are the calling card, with a bit of almost woodsy character and a touch of orange-like citrus. One taster even noted a bit of mint on this one. There’s not much in the way of balancing malt, but that’s hardly why you’re drinking a beer like this anyway, right? In fact, in execution, Founders Harvest Ale could probably be called an excellent example of classic west coast IPA. And that’s by no means a bad thing.
City: Placentia, CA
The verdict: The Bruery’s second offering is their take on a traditional gueuze, albeit hugely dry-hopped with fresh hops. This most recent version of Rueuze uses the Huell Melon hop, which tends to get weird taste descriptors that range all the way from honeydew to strawberry and even vanilla. As with the Humulus Terreux, though, the base beer is what will draw your attention first, with an assertive, puckering level of tartness and rush of lemon juice-like acid. A vinegary tang gives way on the tail end of each sip to hops, and here we actually did pick up something distinctively melon-like. In fact, one taster who happens to own and operate a sour brewery said that he eventually came to think of this beer as the most hop-forward in its day of tasting, although not all the other tasters agreed. Still, it’s an inspired confluence between a puckering, characterful sour ale and a unique new hop strain.
City: Munster, IN
The verdict: Big things are brewing for 3 Floyds, which managed to poach away the much-admired former brewmaster of Surly, Todd Haug, only a couple of weeks ago. One can’t help but be excited to see how Haug will influence the already hop-driven 3 Floyds lineup, among which Broo Doo is always an annual highlight. As for this year’s vintage, it impressed by being quite distinct from almost all the other entrants. Especially on the nose, this beer is much juicier and more nouveau than many of the other fresh hop beers, with big, sweet, almost candy-like grapefruit character in particular. In fact, it reminded us at times of a grapefruit-added IPA such as Grapefruit Sculpin, to the extent that two tasters independently wrote “grapefruit candy” in their notes. On the palate, Broo Doo is big and assertive, with sweet, juicy grapefruit citrus, chased by grassiness and pine. It’s not quite as sweet here as it is on the nose, but Broo Doo was still probably the most sweet and juicy of these fresh-hop IPAs. A true crowd-pleaser, it’s hard to imagine who this wouldn’t appeal to.
City: Petaluma, CA
The verdict: Lagunitas takes home the award for hoppiest beer in this fresh hop tasting without ever breaking a sweat. Born Yesterday tastes like the epitome of freshness, which was exactly the idea all along. Huge resin and orange citrus notes erupt out of the glass and perfume the air. Juicy citrus is there on the palate, with tons of green, grassy flavors that gain a slight edge in the resin vs. citrus power struggle. There’s essentially no malt to speak of in this one, or if there is, it’s been entirely washed away on a tidal wave of pure hop expressiveness. Bitterness is moderate but firm, allowing you to simply soak up the hoppy goodness. As we said previously, this is by definition not the most complex of beers. They’re not striving toward balance; they’re striving toward making a decadent experience for lovers of fresh hops. That’s what Born Yesterday does so well, and presumably why it’s become a beloved beer in a very short amount of time.
City: Seattle, WA
The verdict: Woah, did this beer come out of left field to surprise us. Note: We weren’t surprised that Fremont Brewing Co. was the winner, because Fremont is a damn good brewery that has proven itself repeatedly in these tastings, but because we’ve never tasted any hop-forward beer from Fremont before that tastes like this one. Where many of their other hop-forward beers have seemed well-balanced, classical and measured to us, this one is rowdy, juicy and free-wheeling.
With a hop nose almost as purely big as the Born Yesterday, Cowiche Canyon is certainly one of the hoppiest beers in the tasting. It presents big, juicy lemon citrus and tropical fruit notes, chased by more bitter, resinous impressions. Compared side-by-side with the Born Yesterday, it’s the citrus that edges out resin this time. On the palate, it’s juicy and semi-sweet, a bit less dry than Born Yesterday and with just a ghost of soft, bready malt as well. The hops here are simply perfect in their integration and how they fit into the beer as a whole. The whole thing deserves a standing ovation, and we at Paste are happy to be the ones to give it.
Jim Vorel is Paste’s resident craft beer guru. You can follow him on Twitter for much more drink-focused content.