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Get Nerdy With It: A Look at Fresh Hop Beers

Oct 04, 2017 Comments (0)  | Tags: Beer Geekery Get Nerdy With It: A Look at Fresh Hop Beers

 

For ­­­hop heads the world over, the end of summer signals the beginning of something great: fresh hop season. Hop plants, Humulus lupulus, reach maturity and are ready to harvest in the middle of August to the middle of September depending on the variety. It’s around that time we see an explosion of fresh hop beers on-tap.

Why should I seek out fresh hop beers? 

As the hops reach maturity, the amount of the compounds beneficial to brewing increase. Bittering compounds, alpha- and beta-acids, increase as the cones near maturity but don’t continue to increase past a regular harvest time.

The alpa- and beta-acids are compounds that increase the amount of bitterness in the finished beer. Alpha acids that are not bitter or aromatic on their own get transformed when boiled to iso-alpha-acids that impart pleasant bitterness. On the other hand, the beta-acids that are not bitter and only slightly aromatic on their own stay as they are through boil and fermentation, and only impart a harsh bitterness as finished beer is aged.

Along with the bittering compounds, the essential oil content continues to increase, and will keep accumulating as long as the hops are on the plant. The essential oils are the aromatic compounds that give hops and beer their characteristic smells. On their own these compounds have aromas of pine, spices, flowers, citrus, or many other smells. Together they make up the tropical, resinous, or dank overall experience that hops and beer give.

To have the most effective hops for brewing, the harvest time needs to be just right so the benefits of increased bittering and aroma compounds outweigh the negatives of decreased color and weakening of the cones at late harvest.  

After harvest, the cones are usually dried from about 80% moisture down to about 9% to preserve them for shipment and storage. Although the kilning process strips some of the oils and aroma, and changes the balance of some of the flavors, this step is necessary for storage since the fresh hops start to deteriorate after 24 hours.

Enter “Fresh-Hopping”: using hops fresh off the farm in the 24-hour window before the quality starts to decline.

To make this happen, brewers work closely with the farmers to organize logistics for the brew day. The farmers watch the hops closely and once the call is made to harvest, everything is a go. The brewers need to know the exact time of delivery so they can start the beer making a few hours before that and the boiled wort is ready to get “fresh-hopped” at the very end of the brew. The addition of the fresh hops at the end of the brew allows maximum impact of the fresh hops, bringing out all the farm fresh aroma without adding much to the bitterness.

Fresh hop beers should be consumed as soon as they’re ready.

When the beer has fermented and conditioned, it still has a lot of the aromas and flavors from the fresh hops. Once in package, time, heat, light and oxygen start to take their toll. Each factor contributes to the transformation of the compounds that are beneficial in beer to compounds that don’t have the same strength, don’t have any perceivable attributes at all, or worst, they degrade into unwanted flavors that can ruin an otherwise delicious beer. Since the fresh hops have more and different aromas and flavors than processed hops, there is more chance for these compounds to react and change.

Luckily, kegs are a great container to keep fresh hopped beer fresh: they completely block light, they have less headspace and less oxygen in the package than bottles, and they’re (hopefully) kept cold their whole shelf life. The factor unaccounted for in that list then is time, and that’s up to the consumer to handle.

We were lucky enough to work with Gayle Goschie, owner of Goschie Farms, for this year’s fresh-hopped pale ale, Green Haze. Check out our earlier blog post about the brewing of this beer or find it on tap near you by using our Delicious Beer Finder

Cheers to fresh hops!

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About the Author

When you need to know the nitty-gritty nerdy side of beer, Joe has your back. As Ninkasi's Analytical Quality Specialist, Joe makes sure our beers are just as our customers expect each and every time. On Fridays, you'll find him around the brewery sporting the latest trends in Hawaiian shirts. Any day of the week (especially during MLS season), you'll find him watching a game with a Helles Belles in-hand. 


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