PORTLAND, Ore. (MainStreet) – Budweiser and Coors Light aren't likely to be made with fresh-picked hops anytime soon, but that doesn't mean Anheuser-Busch InBev (BUD) or MillerCoors can't offer U.S. drinkers a fresh-hop beer.
During the weeks of the late-summer, early fall hop harvest, small brewers in the hop-growing regions of the Pacific Northwest and in the smaller hop-producing corners of the U.S. rush to get hops from their vines and trellises and into the kettles within 24 hours to produce “fresh hop” or “wet hop” beers. That freshness produces a floral aroma and sweet flavor typically devoid of the harsh bitterness of heavily hopped beers produced with preserved or “dry” hops. That 24-hour leeway has prompted a huge debate over the terms “wet hop” and “fresh hop” – sometimes, there's a bit of drying during those down hours – while allowing brewers across the country a chance to make beers that were once the sole provenance of brewers in hop-heavy locations.
Since setting up the MainStreet beer bureau just outside of Portland in Oregon's Willamette Valley two years ago, we've not only sampled and profiled the fresh hop beer of the region, but began growing Cascade and Willamette hops of our own. This year's haul would have been enough to make a batch if overly dry conditions and curious deer hadn't decimated the crop, but our four vines still paled in comparison with the acres of trellises we saw at Sodbuster Farms in Salem, Ore., while accompanying Hood River, Ore.-based Full Sail Brewing to a hop harvest in mid-September.
Sodbuster supplies hops to Oregon brewers including Full Sail; its Hood River neighbor Double Mountain brewing; Portland-based McMenamin's; Eugene, Ore.-based Ninkasi and Bend, Ore.-based Deschutes. That last brewery, the largest of the bunch at 286,000 barrels of production in 2013, still ships only a small fraction of the amount of beer made by SABMiller (SBMRY) /MolsonCoors (TAP) joint venture MillerCoors (57.2 million barrels in 2013) or A-B InBev (96.5 million barrels) in a year.
That kind of scale makes Sodbuster's acreage look as small as our four hop vines compared with the vast, 1,800-acre Elk Mountain Farm in Bonners Ferry, Idaho. That hop farm feeds Anheuser-Busch InBev and its craft subsidiary Goose Island, the Chicago-based brewer that A-B bought for nearly $40 million in 2011, and has more than quadrupled in size since Goose Island and A-B joined forces. It's not that big brewers don't have the hops to make fresh-hop beer: It's just logistically implausible to roll out fresh hop beer nationwide.
But nobody said MillerCoors and Anheuser-Busch InBev had to make enough fresh-hop brew for the entire class. With each operating much smaller brands and breweries as part of their craft divisions, MillerCoors and A-B can make smaller batches that they don't have to ship to every supermarket or convenience store across the country.
In MillerCoors' case, its AC Golden Brewing subsidiary in Golden, Colo. – part of MillerCoors' Tenth & Blake craft division – has been making fresh-hop beer since it was founded in 2007. Tenth & Blake spokesman Mark Rasmussen notes that this year, AC Golden made a version of its Colorado Native India Pale Lager using hops grown in Colorado's Western Slope and from AC Golden's own hop yard in Golden. Exactly one keg was sold off site, while the rest went to Bill's Pub at the Coors Brewery in Golden.
Meanwhile, MolsonCoors' SandLot Brewery at Coors Field in Denver last brewed a fresh-hop beer in 2013 using 150 pounds of Colorado-grown Cascade hops. The brewers ran 10 barrels of wort through them and sold the ensuing beer during the end of the Rockies' season last September. Don't dismiss it as gimmicky ballpark beer, either: SandLot is where Blue Moon Belgian White was first produced by brewer Keith Villa in 1995 and where brewers took home a bronze medal from the Great American Beer Festival this year for their Move Back Dortmunder.
Over at Anheuser-Busch InBev, meanwhile, recently acquired Patchogue, N.Y.-based Blue Point Brewery brewed its Wet Hops Experiment Pale Ale last season just before the A-B buyout. Blue Point has wet hop varieties dating back to at least 2011 and is still capable of making that beer in small batches.
Goose Island isn't left out of the fresh hop mix, either. This year, it released its Sticky Feathers Wet Hop IPA in the Chicagoland area to mark the hop harvest season. Made with 100% Michigan-grown hops from Hop Head Farms in Hickory Corners, Mich., Sticky Feathers gets a very limited run and has just about no chance of showing up across the country with 312 Urban Wheat, Honkers Ale or any of Goose Island's more widely available brands.
So why would big brewers make such a small, niche beer? Well, for one, they're brewers and they have access to some of the best hop supplies in the country, if not the largest supplies in the world. At some point, you still have to hone your craft and experiment. For another, as craft breweries repeatedly show, there's something to be said for putting a whole lot of effort into relatively small quantities of beer. AC Golden, SandLot, Goose Island and Blue Point are pitted against small craft brewers everywhere from supermarket aisles to barroom taps to GABF with a purpose.
If the big brewers want to play small, they're going to have to do the little things well. Fresh hop season gives their boutique brewers an excuse to do just that.
— By Jason Notte for MainStreet
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