The hop harvest is just winding down and, in the Pacific Northwest, that means it's also fresh hop beer season. Immediately after hop farmers took topcutting machines to their bines, loaded them into trucks and prepared to haul them to barn-sized kilns for drying, some of their craft-brewing climate cut them off on the way to the heaters. On harvest day, some brewers took freshly cut bines, pluck off their hop cones, threw them into boiling wort and use them to made what's become a region's favorite seasonal beers.
Some brewers argue that "fresh" means the freshest dried hops of the season, but brewing pioneer Bert Grant and his Yakima Brewing Company thought otherwise more than 20 years ago and reserved the "fresh" label for hops plucked and thrown into the brewing process within a 24-hour window. By using hops within that timeframe, brewers can tweak a beer's aroma, reduce its bitterness and let the citrus, pine and spice flavors of a hop run free. A result is an overall more flavorful beer without the harsh hop bitterness.
No place in the U.S. has more reverence for this time of year than the Yakima Valley. During the summer, bushy hop bines crawl up wire attached to tall poles, making green curtains that stretch for miles and giving large swaths of the region a citric aroma as the hops ripen in the sun. Yakima-area hop farmers and hop brokers welcome brewers from all corners of the globe during harvest season as they shore up contracts for future hop growth, determine brewers' needs and showcase new and experimental hop varieties. Visitors make their way through the hop museum in mural-lined Toppenish, visit nearly a dozen area breweries (some located in the middle of hop farms) and eventually gather for the Yakima Fresh Hop Ale Festival at the end of September.
Nearly 60 breweries and 7,000 revelers showed up to the event in Downtown Yakima this year, but they did so amid a period of uncertainty in the beer industry. According to the Brewers Association craft beer industry group, craft beer growth slowed from double digit percentage points for much of the last decade to less than 7% in 2016. Growth for the first half of 2017 hit 8%, but a whole lot of that growth comes from the newest of the nation's nearly 6,000 breweries. Just five years ago, there were fewer than 2,500 U.S. breweries.
That's still growth, but even a slowdown has consequences. Last year, 96 U.S. breweries closed, which is the highest number of closings in more than a decade and more than double the 47 that closed five years ago. This year, Yakima hops broker 47Hops filed for bankruptcy, citing slowed craft beer growth and overly optimistic brewers as the reasons for its struggles.
They may have a point. Few places feel a slowdown in the beer business as acutely as Yakima. According to the Department of Agriculture, the Yakima Valley will produce 72 million pounds of hops this year. By comparison, the entire U.S. will produce 97.6 million pounds, making Yakima responsible for roughly 75% of U.S. hop production. It's nearly triple the production of the next two largest hop-producing states combined (Oregon and Idaho, with nearly even portions of a 26-million-pound yield). If Yakima was its own country, it would be the second-largest hop producer in the world behind Germany.
If Yakima produces too few hops that brewers are looking for, it creates a shortage and spikes prices. If it plants too many acres of hops, suppliers including 47Hops get stuck with the excess supply. In 47Hops's case, it's sitting on nearly $5 million in hops that brewers don't need (even though they're contractually obligated to take them).
At first glance, it appeared that none of that seemed to dampen the revelry at Yakima's Fresh Hop Ale Festival. But taking a closer look around the tents and seeing some brewers with lines across the festival grounds and others with bored pourers just waiting for customers to take pity on them and their beers, the roughly 60 brewers on hand seemed like a microcosm of the beer market in general: A few hot brands struggling to keep up with demand and a whole lot of brewers trying to unload supply.
All of that said, fresh-hop beer is a joy for the drinker regardless of the state of the industry. While seasoned brewers in hop-growing states like Washington, Oregon and Idaho have mastered fresh-hop brewing, watching new brewers struggle with the logistics of the process, the inconsistency from year to year and the extremely finite shelf life of each batch is an intriguing and informative part of the process. I attending this year's installment of Yakima's Fresh Hop Ale Festival and found 10 examples of the diverse offerings that regional brewers concoct around this time of year. Considering that Oregon brewers alone brewed more than 150 different varieties of fresh-hop beer this year alone, this list is by no means comprehensive:
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Dwinell Country Ales
Just opened in August by Justin and Jocelyn Leigh, who I'd met during a beer marketing course at Portland State University in February, Dwinell Country Ales fills a rare geographic void for breweries in the Northwest. Goldendale sits above the Columbia River Gorge on land aptly named for its tall, golden grass and sloping hills and valleys. Using orange-and-grapefruit tinged Citra hops, wild yeast from the region and the Brettanomyces bacteria that gives Belgian beer Orval its trademark flavor, this pale ale was more reminiscent of a dry white wine than a pale ale you'd find at a local brewpub, but with just 5% alcohol by volume (ABV). With some slight vanilla backing, peach-and-citrus notes and a hint of grape (which the brewers took full advantage of by brewing a small batch with pinot gris grape must), Horse Thief was one of the most unique fresh-hop offerings I'd sample all day.
Icicle Brewing Company
In a town north of Yakima that transformed itself into an Alpine village (complete with timber construction, gothic script and edelweiss) in the early 20th Century to draw visitors and avoid bankruptcy, Icicle fills brewing void. Its beer also has to be accessible to the tourists who come in from Seattle on Route 2 or from points south and east via Route 97. Apres Harvest is a textbook example of a fresh hop ale, using lemon-lime Ekuanot hops in this grassy 5% ABV pale ale. If you were to walk into a fresh-hop ale festival and find yourself at a loss for what to drink first, this is a great introductory course.
Georgetown Brewing Company
Named for its Seattle neighborhood and originally built as a keg-only brewery (which it was until just recently, when it started canning some of its beers), Georgetown is a brewer that's become not only one of the most prolific in its city, but also one of the most prominent faces of its brewing scene. In its standard form, Bodhizafa is a nod to the trend toward hazy, fruit-packed IPA not unlike those brewed in New England. However, true to its geography, Georgetown balanced out that rolled-oat haze and its Citra and Mosaic hops packed with citrus and tropical fruit with Chinook and Columbus hops that enhance the beer's bite and give it a bit of West Coast IPA character. This works out really well for a fresh-hop beer, as the tropical hops kept the West Coast hops from seeming overly vegetal while the young Columbus and Chinook kept it from tasting like juice. Toward the end of the festival, with drinkers seemingly weary of being pulled toward extremes or tasting generic fresh-hop pale ales and IPA, this beer finally got the sizable lines it deserved.
Barley Brown's Brewing Company
Baker City, Ore.
Eastern Oregon's Barley Brown's is within shouting distance of the Wallowa Mountains and has its pick of great local hops and grains. It's put them both to good use, winning gold at the Great American Beer Festival for its Pallet Jack IPA, but makes no apologies for either. At a time when brewers are looking to the mellow, hazy, fruity IPA of the East Coast for inspiration, Barley Brown's has no time for any of that and just loaded this 6.9% ABV IPA with piney Chinook hops. In business for nearly 20 year, Barley Brown's knows that a fresh-hop beer requires a fairly potent, high-alpha (bitter) hop if it's going to be enjoyable for any amount of time. The biting, pungent pine and grapefruit of the Chinook is near perfect for this beer, which deserved more love at the festival than it received.
Deschutes Brewing Company
Deschutes may have been the largest brewer at this event. Producing nearly 400,000 barrels and expanding to a second brewery in Roanoke, Va., Deschutes is the 15th-largest brewery in the country. However, it's also just a four-hour ride down Route 97 from Yakima and about three hours from the Willamette Valley hop-growing region and still takes part in fresh-hop season. This year, it's brewed a special version of its Chasin' Freshies Pale Ale that uses Centennial Hops from Oregon's Goschie Farms and malt from Mecca Grade Malting. With both using salmon-safe growing and harvesting practices, Deschutes decided to make this beer a fund-raiser for the Native Fish Society that protects local salmon populations. We didn't have a tough time getting to this beer, but that's typically the case for big brewers at small festivals, but aroma of this beer was more potent than much of what we'd sampled throughout the day, while the grapefruit citrus flavor also held up nicely.
Holy Mountain Brewing Company
I was able to get to Holy Mountain during its first year in business in Seattle's Interbay neighborhood in 2015 and loved the minimalist taproom and creative array of offerings. Apparently, the entire region was just as taken with them as I was, as the line for their Wetwired fresh-hop collaboration with fellow Seattle brewer Cloudburst stretched clear across the festival grounds to the music stage. However, when a beer runs out at a festival like this, it's worth going with a brewery's second pick. Holy Mountain brought along this 6.4% vanilla and coffee stout that tasted like a cup of coffee with a shot of half and half. Was it a fresh-hop beer? I didn't taste anything in the glass that Good Beer Hunting writer Bryan Roth offered me that would lead me to believe it was, but it was a fine change of pace from more hop-forward beers and a great palate-cleanser at the halfway point.
Two Beers Brewing Company
Two Beers has been brewing this beer for nine years and had it declared the best beer of Yakima's Fresh Hop Ale Festival back in 2015, but much has changed since then. Just last year, Two Beers and its sibling Seattle Cider Co. were sold to French cider collective Agrial. It was a fairly unique move within the industry, as few brewers have sold to small foreign concerns and even fewer have sold to companies specializing in cider. If there's been substantial change within this brewery, however, it hasn't been reflected in this beer. An effective use of lemony, high-alpha Centennial hops made this a beer built for the long haul of fresh hop season. Granted, the "long haul" is generally a month -- compared to three months for your average beer -- but after brewing since 2006, Two Beers definitely has a handle on fresh hops.
The great-grandparents of owners Patrick Smith, Meghann Quinn, and Kevin Smith first planted hops in the Yakima Valley in 1932, the year before Prohibition ended. Their 11,000-square foot production facility that they opened in 2013 sits in their family's hop fields just down the road from where they grew up and is surrounded on three sides by Cascade hops. Kevin Smith, who serves as head brewer, came over from a shift brewing gig a Two Beers to develop his brewery's offerings at the family farm's nanobrewery. However, this brewery's location, proximity to the hop supply and myriad hop addled offerings (often run through a Randall tap in the brewery's taproom that strains beers through yet another layer of hops) have made it a favorite among folks in Seattle. This year, Bale Breaker teamed up with Seattle brewer Cloudburst, which is made up of former employees from Anheuser-Busch InBev-owned Seattle brewer Elysian, to make this 6.9% ABV IPA that was first brewed with former Elysian owner and brewer Dick Cantwell in 2014. I tasted this one late in the evening and it still came through as an outright bomb of orange, lemon and grapefruit. By far, the most refreshing fresh-hop offering of the event.
Cowiche Creek Brewing Company
Opened by two third-generation Central Washington farmers Derrick and Maria Nordberg just last year, this brewery debuted its first beers at the Yakima Fresh Hop Ale Festival in 2016. Granted, the Nordbergs spent four years honing their craft before that, and the fruits of their 40-acre farmstead are evidence of it. Using 400 pounds of Simcoe hops in the boiling portion of the brewing process alone, the Nordbergs made this 6.5% ABV IPA heavy on pine-and-grapefruit bite. That's no small feat, considering how easy it is to throw in a bunch of hops during fermentation, amp up the aroma and leave an unsatisfying earthy flavor behind. A great deal of care was put into showcasing all elements of the Simcoe hop in this beer, and the effort is greatly appreciated.
Breakside Brewing Company
This mid-sized regional brewery with three locations in Portland was (and, to a great extent, still is) an experimental entity that meddled with flavor parings and took an culinary approach to its beers. However, after it took gold at the Great American Beer Festival for its flagship IPA in 2014, its hoppier beers -- and not its tart and somewhat fruity coffee gose or lemon verbena lager -- brought the brewery wider notoriety. This year, Breakside opened a new location in Northwest Portland dedicated primarily to IPA and has brewed at least six fresh-hop beers. They brought two to the Yakima festival -- and its tropical fruit-tinged Fresh Hop El Dorado Lager was refreshing enough -- but its Fresh Hop Mosaic was the star. A 5.9% ABV pale ale bordering on an IPA, this was a full-bodied melange of up-front tropical fruit flavors that beer geeks playfully refer to as "the juice." Juicy is a poor description of a beer, but when you're getting not just notes of passionfruit, watermelon and papaya, but palate-slapping insinuations of each of those flavors, "juicy" almost seems apt.
Varietal Brewing Company
A brewery so new that it currently has no home of its own and has previously released this beer at Bale Breaker's facility, Varietal will finally move into its own brewery in Sunnyside next year. If this beer was any indication, that move is long overdue. A double IPA that holds its ABV to 6.6% -- which is about as potent as a standard IPA -- Varietal manages to pack the pine-and-grapefruit/lemon flavor and aroma of an imperial IPA into this far more manageable package. A standout beer reminiscent of the imperial IPA of the early 2000s, this is the kind of beer that can make a strong argument for traditional West Coast hops while tamping down the alcohol content that was beer drinkers' favorite complaint about those hop bombs from the aughts. Despite a creeping tide of hazy IPA and East Coast fruit flavors, there's still a contingent of brewers that isn't done experimenting with and adapting the West Coast IPA that brought the style to prominence.