The last year and a half has been…/interesting, in that way the Chinese proverb warns; It’s been traumatic, and stressful, and confused, with some triumphs and more disappointment than I’d have liked. The end result is another dozen months of lost time making any progress whatsoever towards the kinds of things most people take for granted by the time they’re my age.
To say I started on the struggle bus and never got off is an understatement. Coming off a 3rd shift, overnight job at a company that didn’t really much care who worked for them, I go a gig delivering wine that I really liked, and my luck promptly showed up, just in time to ruin what would have been a long-term, comfortable existence where I was free to explore Oregon and indulge in the things I enjoy – like beer.
It only took me ten more months to finally get my shit together enough that I can say I’m doing well again, except there’s lingering issues from the black hole that I lived in for most of the last year. I can’t sugar coat it, depression and overwhelming anxiety make people prone to bad choices, and I’m no exception. Legal issues could still derail my current progress, and the fact that our society is built in such a way as to make that normal is hard for me to accept. Our criminal justice system is surely two of those things.
My new job and living situation has basically sucked up all my creative energy (and motivation in general), which are good things for once. I’m exploring new creative outlets and editing photos and video for a job, something I actually went to school for all those years ago. Writing copy for products and instructions for fabrication equipment is really fun, since you get to use all the words in those kinds of documents and nobody complains.
Tis the season
So it’s been a few weeks since I’ve even started a beer project or written an outline for an article that will never make it past the draft stage (for once much of my writing is progressing to ‘FINISHED’. It’s a huge change). But I’ve been trying to get my fill of the Fresh Hop beer that flows like water in this part of the world, this time of year. If you go to any legit bottle shop or grocery isle, you’ll find countless fresh hop versions of your favorite local brews, and even more variation of once-offs that rely solely on this one run every year to be recognized by the beer nerds of PNW America.
I can’t really say any have stood out, honestly. It’s a fact that these are tasty beers, but they’re almost all IPAs and pale ales and at a certain point they all blur together and become just one lump of tasty adult beverage in the back of the mind. Fort George and StormBreaker have both pushed their usual number of FH variations, along with all my other favorite breweries like Block 15 (Gloria! pils mmm). I follow some folks on Untapped that have tried something like 70+ FH beers this season alone, a feat that requires constant effort and, likely, a semi-permanent buzz 5 days a week.
All of that aside, I’m still a huge fan of the concept and idea of super-fresh, locally sourced beer that showcases all the best techniques of brewers in the most competitive market in the world. Every brewery and brewer in Oregon is working in a tight community of fellow brewers and the result is delicious. There is literally a beer for every palate on the shelves of my favorite bottle shops here, with (seemingly) no limits on the bonkers factor. A popular example is Fort George’s pickle beer, or Great Notion’s fruited sours that tend to taste like breakfast pastries.
The fresh hop concept isn’t exactly new, but it has developed over the last 5 or 6 years into one of those niche beers that any ‘respectable’ brewer wants to have on the books, along with all those other popular style variations that come and go endlessly. The difference is…unfortunate in comparison, but I’m going to bring up pumpkin-flavored beers here, to put the fresh hop style into context. Both of them are seasonal, vary quite a bit in overall spread of flavor profiles, and any decent brewery is going to try to make one. The difference is that only breweries in the PNW (and some in the midwest) have access to fresh hops in the first place. You can buy pumpkin spice flavoring by the barrel, and store it from one year to the next if you don’t use it all…but fresh hops are a live, short-lived commodity that might make it across state lines at most, like say from Oregon to Colorado.
I’m also impressed with the logistics of FH brews, notably because so much else needs to be organized before those buds are harvested. Any major production brewery of any size has planned their products out as far as possible, for marketing and development and basic materials purchasing. The artwork and cans and packaging needs to be sorted out weeks or months in advance, and then tucked away until the hop grower says ‘it’s time’.
Let’s say for the sake of this conversation that you get a week’s notice from your hop supplier before they’re set to start pulling bines down for those delicious, oil-soaked hop cones. You’ve (hopefully) been sitting on the grain, and you’ve got some production capacity set aside – somehow. In previous years you’ve worked out the kinks and, best-case scenario, you’re just waiting for those hops to come in from the field. It’s taken dozens of hours each year to get ready for these batches, sometimes one-off recipes but often it’s just the flagship IPA with fresh hops; regardless, it’s an impressive feat of supply and time management.
And in the end, you’re still working with a bunch of ingredients that are full of living bacteria and the process isn’t always guaranteed to be successful. Your yeast might not pop like it should, leaving you with an unfinished brew. Maybe the temperature is 100+ plus for several days right after you brew, and your insulated fermenters just can’t keep things at the right temps for the results you want. Maybe your new brewhouse intern missed a corner when sterilizing the bright tank or fermenter, and you lose the whole batch to some funkiness. It is rare, but the fact the hops are still wet, as they say, from the field, means that they’re far more likely to carry the things that can throw it all off.
Imagine going through this process every year, trying to wrangle every little thing into place for the best, freshest beer you’ll make all year, and all this uncertainty hangs over the whole process – success hinging on the microscopic bacteria and yeast getting along in a process few actually understand fully.
Enjoy it, if you can find it
In the end, it’s a minor change to the stuff I drink all year, but it’s so much more than that for the industry itself. More than a few years back, when Stone introduced their ‘Enjoy By IPA” they actually pioneered the distribution process for ultra-fresh beer to markets outside their region (San Diego). Bespoke batches with different hops and malt profiles, with birthdates printed on the cans, wasn’t an entirely new concept, but the idea that there was a limited window to drink these IPAs was. The market has embraced this idea, a decade plus later, and the fresh hop style is the ultimate extension of the idea that freshness matters in your beer.
It’s taken a lot of work to get here, where even the smallest brewery in the midwest is cognizant of the benefits of keeping everything as fresh as possible in the process. The consumer is primed for this sort of premium product, with modern tastes having moved this direction for several years now. We’ve been informed of the pitfalls of over-processed food and turned to the whole farm-to-table model for sustainability and health reasons. There’s no reason beer brands can’t capitalize on these concepts with fresh hop beers moving forward – if they can get their hands on a supply of fresh cones.
I don’t know where my readers hail from, or if they’ve ever heard of fresh hop beers, but I can definitely encourage them to grab a can if they see a FH variant at their favorite bottle shop…as long as it’s been kept cold, and isn’t more than 2 months old. Oregon and Washington breweries have a huge chunk of the market, so if you regularly see stuff from the PNW keep your eyes peeled for those variants.
Stay froosh ya’ll. You can bet I’ll sipping a cold one after I get off work and settle into my new digs in a place called Brightwood. Even just 40 miles from Portland, the flow of FH beers is less, but I get FH HeadStash (Everybody’s Brewing) and Killer Green(Double Mountain) and so I can’t complain too much. I won’t be hitting anywhere near 70 variations this year though. Maybe next.
I hope to finish at least one of my other long-term writing projects by the end of the year, so stay tuned for some actual reporting/writing on a topic that’s been stuck in my craw for quite some time. You’ll know when it drops. Cheers.