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PORTLAND, Ore. ( TheStreet) -- Back in August and early September, beer lovers in hop-growing regions across the country got out their ladders and snips, took to the wires and twine strung to poles, barns and garages and began harvesting big green piles of hops.
Nothing against the nutmeg and cinnamon of a pumpkin or harvest ale or the easy drinking goodness of an Oktoberfest Marzen, but if you're fortunate enough to live in a place where the vines stretch 20 feet and the hops blossom so thick that the air is tinged with the scent, fresh-hop beer season is a wonderful time of year.
Situated outside Portland, Ore., as it is, our beer reporting bureau spent the past year learning the merits of the fresh hop through immersion. We attended The Oregon Brewers Guild and Oregon Hop Growers Association's 2012 Portland Fresh Hop Fest at Oaks Amusement Park last October and sampled from dozens of state offerings teeming with Centennial, Cascade, Chinook, Nugget, Crystal, Liberty and various other hops.
In spring, we planted a few hop rhizomes -- basically, hop roots -- of our own and watched our fledgling Cascade and Willamette hop vines slowly creep up the twine. With a first-year yield of scarcely a cup of mixed hops, our first crop landed on the back porch of
Lucky Labrador Brewing in Portland -- where pickup truck beds filled with surplus hop vines were transferred to tables of beer-fed volunteers for picking, sorting and weighing.
Daunted in our own efforts, we took a quick trip to the Hillsboro, Ore., site of Oregon-based brewery, restaurant, theater and hotel chain McMenamins, where a brewer at the six-barrel Cornelius Pass Roadhouse and Imbrie Hall brewery explained how fresh hops were most effective in their brew Thundercone when producing aroma and just a bit of flavor. Much of the bittering is left to a somewhat less-fresh hop stockpile.
But it's that flavor and aroma that give those once-a-year fresh hop beers their unparalleled character. Though brewers and beer fans in hop-growing regions such as the Pacific Northwest are usually the prime beneficiaries of U.S. harvest season, the logistics of modern commercial delivery has made it possible for even far-flung breweries to get in on the action. The fresh hops being used by brewers at the Craft Brewers Alliance's
Widmer Brewing facility in Portland bear a distinct resemblance to those being flown in by brewers on the Atlantic.
Granted, as blogger and Northwest beer writer Bill Night
pointed out so vehemently this month, that has led some breweries to play it fast and loose with the "fresh hop" designation. Some will instead use the term "wet hop" to describe freshly picked hops while applying "fresh hop" to bundles of dry product they deem the freshest hops of the season. How can a beer buyer really know the difference?
We wish we could tell you it was a regional thing and that you should be good with beers from hop-growing regions, but Night singled out two Oregon brewers -- Widmer and
Hopworks -- for using only dried hops in "fresh hop" batches from several years ago. Each has since abandoned that practice in favor of the real deal.
Our advice: Get to know the brewers you like and if you have doubts about their fresh hop beer, just ask. Most have a
Twitter presence and have more to lose from lying about it than from giving you the straight story. If that's not enough, here are 10 brews from brewers that we're absolutely positive are using fresh hops. There are far more out there, but just consider these 10 a rhizome to get you started: