Ahhh, fresh hop season. The pinnacle of a beer lover’s fantasy. The holiday to top them all. The reason why the Pacific Northwest produces the best IPAs and hop-forward beers in the world.
Those who live in the Pacific Northwest know how fortune we are to live so close to Yakima, WA, the largest hop producing region in the world. The climate, soil conditions, and water sources have turned Eastern Washington into a hop mecca. And every year at the end of August, brewers begin their pilgrimage.
So, wait. Don’t we brew beer all year long? What makes fresh hop season so much more exciting than the rest of the year? Hops, like most plants, do well in refrigeration. Therefore the hops are harvested when they can be, processed into pellets, and kept cold until they are needed all year long. But have you ever picked around a fruit platter that served at a luncheon in February? Where the strawberries are more white than red and the cantaloupe is soggy and tasteless and the grapes are the only edible item? Then, have you ever had a cantaloupe from the San Joaquin Valley in June? Or strawberries from Skagit valley in August? Yeah. That’s the difference between cold pelletized hops and fresh, whole cone hops.
Amarillo, featured in the photos, is the first varietal to come to fruition in the valley. They are a smaller cone and almost perfectly round, with intensely bright yellow lupulin glands (the sticky insides that look like pollen and hold all the oils). And while Amarillo is known for its profound profile orange and grapefruit notes, which makes them incredible for cold addition and dry hopping, that luminescent yellow lupulin holds a good amount of alpha acids (8-11%), making them a solid bittering hop as well.
So the race begins. Breweries within a reasonable driving distance hustle to the hop farms once the producers confirm the processing is finished. Those breweries with experience in the hop race have learned how to perfectly time a batch of beer so when the trucks and vans arrive with back with bags full of fresh cones, they can be weighed and immediately dumped into the boil.
The result of such effort is undeniable after the first smell. Having hopped a beer with the fresh, not pelletized, hops, the aromas and flavors are so much more distinct. The burst of citrus is like entering an orange grove in Ojai. The fresh grass and bright bitterness is like the day after a summer rain. The lupulin and acids unveil themselves into a completely new beer drinking experience. The hops get to truly shine in all their glory and beer drinkers get to experience a heightened sensation that only exists in the months of August and September.
Fresh hop season all that is everything it is hyped up to be. And the good news is, you don’t have to deal with the Yakima debauchery that occurs at all the hotels during harvest. You just seek them out at your local craft breweries in the neighborhood. The brewers have done all the hard work for you. Now time to indulge.