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Monday, October 10, 2011

Fresh Hop Shot in the Foot

Back when I was a regular  home brewer and also grew my own hops, I often used homegrown hops in my beers. I even used fresh hops a few times, typically in beers made in September or October. I don't remember the results being particularly spectacular, but it was a fun thing to do and I liked the creative concept.

While I was experimenting, so were the real brewers. I don't know which brewery produced the first fresh hop beer of note, but it seems like these beers started appearing about a decade ago. It was a trickle at first, but fresh hop beers are everywhere now.

Spendy $8 glassware
Fresh hop beers are a seasonal affair. It's not so hard to figure out why. The hops needed to make these beers are only available in the fall...and that's the way it will stay until we come up with a way to replicate hops (ala Star Trek). That makes fresh hop beers arguably special, and presents brewers with a marketing opportunity. Which they are running with.

Enter the plethora of fresh hop festivals popping up. There was one in Hood River on Oct. 1st and one in Portland this past Saturday. Those are not the only ones, I'm sure. Plus, numerous breweries are rolling out fresh hop brews with special release parties, events and fanfare. Fresh hop beers have become part of the festival scene. For better or worse.

The biggest problem with fresh hop beers: The vast majority of them aren't that great. I was beginning to form that opinion prior to visiting the Fresh Hop Festival at Oaks Park, based on prior tasting experiences around town. That opinion was confirmed at the festival, where I tasted a collection of beers I hadn't tasted before.

I'm not even going to get into the beers I tasted and thought less than stellar. They were made by breweries large and small. The common theme was a lack of depth and character. These beers had very little hop aroma or flavor. IBUs were all over the place, but most tasted obnoxiously bright...or perhaps some would say, green.

The line-up...character not included.
Look, I understand fresh hop beers are not going to taste like beers made with dried hops. The question is, can you make great beers with fresh hops? Based on recent experiences, I'm not convinced you can. I'm a fan of hoppy beers. But the fresh hop beers are mostly disappointing. Just my opinion, of course.

Festival Comments
To enter this festival, you had to buy a tasting package. They were charging $1 per ticket, with each ticket good for a 4 oz. taste. Oh, I should note that a few beers required more than one ticket. Still, that's good value, consistent with what other festivals do.

On the flip-side, you had to pay $8 for a shaker pint glass that cost them a fraction of that. Sure, I'll add the glass to my collection at home. But I didn't need to pay an exorbitant price for the privilege. It has become stylish to overcharge patrons for a tasting glass or mug as a way of making money. I wish this annoying practice would stop, but I'm not going to hold my breath.

I met Nutmeg, who was getting lots of attention
The overall setup at Oaks Park was pretty good, with plenty of room under the tent and lots of tables. It was not crowded during my mid-afternoon stint and most of the numerous tables were empty. Up front, there were lines for some beers, caused mostly by the fact that they seemed to have one person pouring 6-8 beers. It wasn't much of an issue, but that arrangement would not have worked very well with a large crowd.

Next up: the pumpkin beers

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