10 Best Fresh Hop Beers

PORTLAND, Ore. ( TheStreet) -- In the green, far-flung corners of the beer world, this is one of the most wonderful times of the year: fresh hops season.

There are drinkers who equate this time of year with the nutmeg, cinnamon and ginger of pumpkin ales and others who raise a stein of milder Oktoberfest brews. But there's an entire corner of the beer universe that -- for a handful of weeks in late summer and early fall -- is either rushing between farms and backyard trellises to pick as many fresh hops as they can, rushing those hops straight into kettles to brew floral, sweet beers or rushing around to local breweries to drink those brews before their flavor dissipates or they disappear completely. They're not as bitter as a typical hoppy beer and, hovering around 5% alcohol by volume, aren't nearly as potent.

Though brewers and beer fans in hop-growing regions such as the Pacific Northwest usually benefit most from the hop harvest season and big brewers get left out of the game altogether, the logistical wonder of modern commercial delivery has made it possible for even remote 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.

After taking a few long, hard whiffs and sips of some of the best fresh hop brews the season has to offer, we've put together a list of 10 great fresh hop brews to get ahold of while the season lasts:

Harvest Ale
Sierra Nevada Brewing, Chico, Calif.

According to brewing lore, this is where the fresh hop push all began. Back in 1996, Sierra Nevada introduced its first "fresh-hop" or "wet hop" Harvest ale. That was followed by years of semantic arguments about whether a "fresh hop" could ever be a "wet hop" if the harvesting process dries it or if that wetness even makes a difference if the fresh oils and resins remain regardless. It was also followed by years of great beer.

The 6.7% ABV Harvest Ale is still made with fresh Cascade and Centennial hops from Eastern Washington, but it's now just one in a fresh hop series. Sierra Nevada also produces a Southern Hemisphere fresh-hop Harvest ale with Halertau, Motueka and Southern Cross hops flown in from New Zealand and Estate Ale with organic hops grown at Sierra's own facilities in California's North Valley. That's just spreading the fresh-hop love, baby.

Thundercone Fresh Hop Ale
McMenamin's, various locations in Oregon and Washington

Let the complaints begin. "McMenamin's is a chain." "That's movie theater beer.""Pick a real beer."

Shut it.

Behind every beer snob is the sniveling little dilettante in their past who didn't know a Rainier from a Rauchbier before some great beer blew their minds. Chances are they don't drink that beer now because they've deemed it too "commercial" but that beer was their all important bridge beer into the craft beer world. Thundercone Ale is just that kind of beer. Floral and fragrant without being overpowering, it goes down with plenty of citrus flavor and very little bitterness.

Granted, it's pretty much only available at McMenamin's pubs, music venues, movie theaters, hotels and resorts, but so what? Those spots draw a lot of people who might otherwise be scared off by the region's more high-octane brews. Thundercone isn't the single best fresh hop beer brewed in the U.S., but it ain't bad either. It's fantastic, if a bit low key. If that's what it takes to make a drinker part with his or her light lager for a few weeks to try some other fresh hop brews, then Thundercone and the McMenamin's brewers who poured all their hops and hearts into it have done their job.

Mutt
Lucky Labrador Brewing, Portland Ore.

To understand fresh hop season in the Pacific Northwest is to look at the trellises, garages, backyard fences and even abandoned fields and vacant buildings covered in hops this time of year. Much like the invasive blackberry bushes that choke the sides of Washington and Oregon roads, hops here just are. They're ingrained into the community, history, agriculture and environment, and anyone whose property produces vines of those fragrant green cones can get in on the action.

That's Mutt in a nutshell: Hops from many places going into one beer. Each year, the brewery solicits requests for backyard hops and blends them all together in one smooth, sweet smelling brew. This year's concoction gathered more than 315 pounds of hops from dozens of backyards and swirled them into a brew that's a bit more amber and malty than an IPA. Why "Mutt"? Because the hops used could be Amarillo, Centennial, Citra, Cascade, Willamette, etc. The brewers don't know and don't ask, and the beer benefits.

Trip Series Imperial Fresh Hop IPA
New Belgium Brewing, Fort Collins, Colo., and Elysian Brewing, Seattle

Fort Collins is a great beer town, but it's not exactly in the middle of hop heaven. New Belgium already trucks fresh Centennial, Amarillo and Cascade hops down from Washington for its 7% ABV Lips of Faith Fresh Hop. If it wants to put those same hops in a more potent 8.5% imperial IPA, it's going to need some help from friends with a hop hook-up.

Enter Seattle's Elysian Brewing, which has partnered with New Belgium on more than a dozen small-batch beers and is much closer to the hop source in Yakima than its friends in Colorado. With Elysian's help, New Belgium created an IPA with its trademark strength and bite, but a far more subtle bitterness than a drinker usually finds in New Belgium's hoppier offerings. There won't be a whole lot of this batch kicking around, but there's more than enough to remind lucky drinkers that it helps to have friends in all latitudes.

Fresh Hop 2012
Two Beers Brewing, Seattle

This little brewery in Seattle's industrial SoDo neighborhood has expanded production, expanded its brewing facilities and tasting room and expanded the fresh hop season by introducing its IPA way back on Aug. 31. That's no small feat, considering the hop harvest usually begins around late August, but the end result is well worth it.

Spiked with a strong passion fruit and grapefruit aroma, Fresh Hop 2012 put heaps of Centennial hops on its nose and used local Apollo, Cascade, Columbus, Super Galena and Warrior hops to get its brisk-yet-bitter flavor. Don't let the copper color and caramel malt fool you: This beer is far less subtle than the "Fresh Hop" name implies.

Co-Hoperative Ale
Fort George Brewery in Astoria, Ore.

From the banks of the Columbia River just down the slope from Fort George Brewery, you can see the huge steel-span bridge into Washington, hear the sea lions on the docks just beyond the old canneries and nearly smell the hops the neighbors are growing. This year, a dozen of those neighbors donated their hops to Fort George, which spent a day picking them off the vines and turning them into this light, amber concoction of indeterminate hop origin. Fort Geoge made four fresh hop beers this season -- its Fresh Hop Sunrise Oatmeal Pale Ale, Fresh Hop Vortex IPA, the subtle Hopstoria session beer and Co-Hoperation -- but none capture Astoria's community spirit quite like Co-Hoperation. If the kids from The Goonies actually grew up in their Astoria-based "Goondocks" setting and took up brewing, this is the beer they'd make.

Wet Hop American Summer "After Dark"
Dogfish Head Brewings & Eats in Rehoboth Beach, Del.

This is far enough from hop country for Dogfish Head to raise a few eyebrows with its "fresh"hop beer, but the 40 pounds of Citra hops overnighted to Dogfish Head's brewpub resulted in a small batch worthy of West Coast respect. This dark 5% ABV ale looks malty and has hints of malt and coffee throughout, but is all citrus on the nose after Dogfish Head brewers spared 90% of their hops for the last 15 minutes of the brewing process. It's not the most conventional fresh hop beer out there, but it may be the best the East Coast has to offer.

Fresh Hop Mirror Pond Ale
Deschutes Brewery, Bend, Ore.

If a beer drinker is still too afraid to wade into fresh hop waters after you've offered him or her a bunch of new varieties, perhaps it's time to go with something they know.

Deschutes' fresh-hop offering is just a different take on its mild, delicate Mirror Pond American pale ale. It's not too bitter, not too strong at 5% ABV and not so unfamiliar that a novice craft beer drinker will run screaming from it into the warm embrace of the maltiest fall beer on the market. If anything, this alternative Mirror Pond just showcases the floral aroma and subtle flavor of its core Cascade hops. All of the hops in this batch come from a single plot of heirloom Cascades, so it's tough to claim a fear of new beers when passing up a brew made with some of Deschutes' longest-standing ingredients.

Chatoe Wet Hop Ale
Rogue Brewery, Newport, Ore.

Anywhere else in the country, Rogue is just a long-tenured craft brewer whose Dead Guy Ale may have made its way onto a few taps. On the West Coast, it's a craft beer beast with pubs, distilleries, breweries and farms in Washington, Oregon and California. That self-sustaining ecosystem only helps Rogue around fresh hop season, when its micro hopyard produces enough Freedom, Revolution, Independent, Alluvial and Liberty hops to power this more than 6% ABV monster brew.

Combined with malt from Rogue's own barley farm and Oregon coastal water, those hops bring a bit more bitterness than a standard wet hop ale. That said, they're also some of the most recognizable little cones on the tap list once the hop harvest comes around.

Fresh Hop Pale Strider
Walking Man Brewing, Stevenson, Wash.

Some of the best breweries in hop country are the smallest, and Walking Man certainly fits both bills. A tiny little brewery and tap room just across the Columbia River from Oregon, Walking Man stakes its entire existence to bold brews such as its Pale Strider American Pale ale.

Ordinarily loaded with citrus aroma and subtle citrus flavor mixed with malty sweetness, Pale Strider uses fresh hops to crank up the smell while muddling the citrusy bitterness a bit. It's a smooth-drinking, nearly sessionable brew at little more than 5% ABV, and that drinkability goes a long way toward distancing this beer from the fresh-hop pack. The brewery itself is little more than a small tasting room that will occasionally serve you a bar pie, but Walking Man's beers have a way of wandering into package store fridges and onto barroom taps when least expected.

Green Pig Fresh Hop Ale
Coalition Brewing, Portland, Ore.

Making a fresh hop beer is an imperfect art. It requires getting your hops from just the right sources, taking them off the vine at just the right time and tasting the resulting beer just before it loses its strong hop profile.

All that said, Coalition's Green Pig may just be the perfect fresh hop beer. Loaded with 110 pounds of farm-fresh Cascade hops and brewed in a tiny 10-barrel facility across from its single-car-garage-sized pub, Green Pig teems with sweet hop aroma but is barely bitter enough to elicit a pucker. That doesn't cost Green Pig any of its understated citrus flavor or distinctly floral scent. It just makes it a more refreshing drink that beer lovers are used to getting from an IPA. That's not such a bad thing.

-- Written by Jason Notte in Boston.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.

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