The Twins are booking flights direct from LaGuardia to Cancun International. Politicians are spewing more venom than a knotted cobra. And department stores are running pre-holiday holiday sales like they’re afraid we’ll all forget what Christmas is really about. It can only mean two things – fall is officially here, and a bevy of fresh-hopped beers are starting to hit the market.

Twin Cities beer drinkers are blessed in that a variety of fresh-hopped beers – ales made with undried whole hops usually picked days, and in some cases minutes, before they’re used in the brewing process – are readily available on the shelves and in favorite pubs. Sierra Nevada’s Harvest Ale Series is solid. Great Divide’s Fresh Hop Pale Ale is impressive. And Founder’s Harvest Ale is heavenly. But beyond these beers, brewers in our own backyard have a handful of phenomenal offerings that arguably lead the way as some of the best examples in the country. And true to form…local means they’re fresher than the rest.

I rounded up the first few local fresh-hop beers out of the gates from Brau Brothers, Minneapolis Town Hall, and Surly, and subjected myself to some brutally wonderful palate punishment.  

Brau Brothers 100 Yard Dash Fresh Hop Ale
This beer completely bowled me over when I tried it at Autumn Brew Review, likely my favorite of the day. The Brau bros pick their estate-grown hops just a short sprint away from the brewhouse, and toss them in minutes after they’re off the bine, literally as fresh as it gets. Beautiful light gold coloring, with a creamy, building off-white head following the pour. Not exactly certain when this batch was brewed, but even a week or so after packaging it’s evident the aroma is beginning to fall off, not nearly the West Coast-style punch in the nose I remembered. However, Centennial, Cascade, Mt. Hood, Sterling and Nugget are used through all stages of the brewing process to deliver what, in my opinion, is the most bitter beer of the selected bunch, a shocking bite that really impressed. At 6.8% ABV, a slightly alcoholic finish, leaving a dry, prickly sensation on the tastebuds.  

Rating: A- 

Minneapolis Town Hall Fresh Hop Ale
This is Town Hall’s annual Fresh Hop Week, and they came out swinging with this year’s version. Poured from the growler with a rich amber coloring, the darkest of the group. Thoughtfully garnished with a whole Citra hop cone that surprisingly emerged from the growler as I poured, a very fun touch. The aroma is potently dank, with strong notes of fresh green onion. Slightly sweeter than the offering from Brau Brothers, but a smoother, more mellow bitterness throughout. The beer finishes full and rounded, the most balanced of the bunch.    

Rating: A

Surly Wet
Probably one of the most anticipated releases from Surly since…well, they’re all anticipated. But this is the first time they’re offering this in cans. And I can assure you, if you don’t have any in your grubby little hands by the time you’re reading this, odds are you’re already out of luck. The lightest coloring of the bunch with a straw-like appearance, Wet greets with an intensely aromatic combination of balsam, lemon and cut grass, with more of the green onion (and no wonder it’s intense, as this beer was canned earlier this morning). More bitter than Town Hall’s version, with a highly attenuated, dry finish. The 7.5% ABV sneaks up on you. This is what I think of when I think of a West Coast-style IPA.

Rating: A

Hops can be a beautiful thing. Bitter, floral, and full of life. In fact, one of my greatest-ever fresh hop experiences took place one day on a golf course in St. Paul…at the turn I bought a hot dog and a Summit EPA on draught from a newly tapped keg. I took one sip, and the hops just exploded off the beer. I promptly threw away the uneaten dog, as there was no sense in confusing my palate. I wanted to completely enjoy the freshest tasting beer I had have ever come across.  

But we’ve all heard it before… 

“Nice IPA, but it’s been on the shelf for a few months and the hops have really faded.” 

I’ve certainly noticed this phenomenon in commercial beers, as well as my own home brew, and don’t doubt that many styles such as pale ales, IPAs and some lagers really do benefit from being enjoyed as freshly as possible to get that true hop bite and wonderful bouquet. On the flipside, other styles such as barleywines can benefit from aging to let the hops mellow out and fade into the malty background over time. 

But what’s the science behind it all? How much DO hops really fade over time? Does age have more impact on aroma, or does it also affect bitterness? At what point do hops start taking a noticeable nose dive…a couple weeks? a month? longer?

To try and find some answers, I first turned to Ken Grossman, founder of Sierra Nevada and one of the pioneers of the craft beer industry in this country. Sierra Nevada’s Pale Ale is considered by most to be the protoypical hoppy American ale, a hop bomb in its day that helped define an entire category and pave the way for literally thousands of other American-style pale ales and IPAs over the past several decades. Starting in 2002, the brewery began growing nearly three acres of hops on its own grounds, primarily focused on Cascade and Chinook used exclusively in their Estate Ale series, with a more recent four acre addition in 2008 that has made room for some experimental varieties.

According to Grossman, hop degradation is a complex mix of variables, at an early stage determined by how the hop was grown and handled prior to brewing.

“We actually have been focusing on hop aroma analysis and hop chemistry for many years, and have devoted significant resources in this area,” Grossman said. “Just to name a few variables, the crop year and harvest maturity can have a great influence. If you are using dried hops – rather than fresh picked  – kilning methods and temperature will have some influence on aroma. Storage conditions after harvest will also change the aroma characteristics greatly. Some of the ‘noble’  aromas in European hops are thought to be from warm storage and oxidation directly after harvest, and some types of hops develop ‘cheesy’ off flavors if not stored cold.”

Once hops are used in the brewing process, a whole different set of complex variables come into play. The bittering and aromatic characteristics of hops come from resins in the hop flower, which are made up of alpha and beta acids. Different hop varieties have different levels of each acid, making some more desirable for bittering as the alpha acids are isomerized in the brew kettle, and others better for lending a floral nose thanks to the beta acids left behind after boiling. 

“From addition times in the kettle, dry hopping, loss of oils from different fermentation temperatures,  and fermenter design, the list of variables impacting aroma and bitterness goes on and on,” said Grossman. “But in a nutshell fresh hops are better in our opinion, if you are looking for lots of clean robust aroma.”

Tom Nielsen, Sierra Nevada’s senior research analyst focused on hop degradation, says that their research has shown that after about two and a half to three months, hop aroma in a packaged beer, derived mainly from beta acids in the hop flower, has already started to diminish significantly. It’s a sentiment backed by Patrick Langlois at Great Divide in Denver, brewers of notable hoppy beers including their Fresh Hop Pale Ale, Titan IPA, and Hercules Double IPA. “Hops tend to dissipate in three to four months, which is why that is the recommended shelf life for most of our beers.” 

According to Nielsen, agitation during shipping can be a significant contributing factor to degradation in aroma. As a beer sits on delivery trucks and eventually finds it way to your local liquor store, the beer’s aromas can be kicked up through the head space and slowly forced out of the crown liner, a process Sierra Nevada refers to as scalping. Nielsen also says oxygen will destroy hop aroma very quickly, whether naturally over time, or through the bottling process.

“We’ve found the hop aroma of a fresh beer shipped overnight from Boston compared to the same beer that just sat here  in Chico was very much reduced,” said Nielsen.  “This degradation doesn’t noticeably impact bitterness. But since aroma plays a significant role in your perception of taste, it can greatly influence your overall enjoyment of the beer.”

Gerri Kustelski, director of quality assurance at Summit Brewing in St. Paul, agrees.

“Organoleptically, there may well be discernable changes,” Kustelski said. “Bitterness can be masked by oxidation and aging, and aroma even more so.  You begin to slowly lose the aroma imparted by dry hopping fairly quickly, possibly within several weeks.  Packaging and distribution processes including shipping and temperature control can affect the flavor stability of beer and, thus, affect the perception of hop aromas and bitterness.” 

The relative levels of alpha and beta acid compounds in a packaged beer also lends perspective to how sensitive and fragile hops can be.

“Aroma compounds are typically measured in parts per billion, compared to bittering compounds which are evaluated in parts per million,” Nielsen said. “If you lose half of your aroma compounds through agitation in shipping, that’s a much more dramatic degradation compared to bitterness. When you’re talking about aging a beer for many years, like our BigFoot Barleywine, the bitterness will eventually fade and change character, but generally speaking aroma is the first component to quickly fall out.”

Once the beer does arrive at your local bottle store or watering hole, some retailers take extra steps to ensure their beer loving customers are able to enjoy the product as closely as possible to how the brewer intended it.

“We certainly do take extra steps to make sure the beer you buy is as good as it can be,” said Jason Alvey, owner of The Four Firkins in St. Louis Park. “We keep the store as cold as we can so even the beer that is not refrigerated is nice and cool. We eliminate sunlight and filter all our lights for U.V. which can of course create a chemical reaction with the hop acids and skunk the beer. But by far the one thing that has the biggest effect is product turnover. We do not have beer that sits around on our shelves for months and months, so the beer you buy from us is as fresh as it can be. Unless of course you are buying a vintage beer that has been carefully aged in one of our climate controlled cellar fridges!”

The bottom line: if you’re interested in getting that full-on, hoppy experience in both aroma and flavor, heed the advice of many hop heads out there. Fresh really is best.

The hops are progressing well.

As you might recall, the Cascade bine got off to an amazing start earlier this summer. Shot up to six or seven feet within the first couple weeks, then it mysteriously tapered off for no apparent reason. I thought for a while that it had actually died, as the leaves started to yellow and take on a frail, papery thin look and feel. In the meantime, my Fuggle and Horizon plants also languished, barely peaking above ground. I’d read those species could be temperamental, but this was getting ridiculous.

Then everything changed. Not sure if it was the barometric pressure, the slew of warm sunny days we’ve been receiving of late, or the sacred Pliny the Elder rain dance I performed during the waxing moon (sorry neighbors), but all three plants have rejuvenated. The Cascade even sprouted dozens of little side tendrils, reaching out like a millipede across the trellis and making foundation for a thicker, fuller bush. I’m hoping the other two catch up to the Cascade in the coming weeks, and they all start sprouting some nice hop cones.  

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Just a quick update on my mini hop yard.

The Cascade plant is really climbing. Granted, I didn’t have it in the ground until mid May, but it’s showing huge gains just in the past few weeks (check out where it was just recently). Compared to the hop plants I saw at Barley John’s last weekend, I’m guessing next year it’ll be much further along by this point. No flowers yet, but those likely won’t come until mid to late summer. Also, my Horizon plant just started peeking out of the pot I planted it in, so I’m hoping it’ll take off in the next couple weeks. I’ll likely get another trellis and put it next to the Cascade plant, taking care so the two bines don’t mix in with each other. 

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DSC02134My Cascade hop plant has finally emerged.

In just a couple short weeks, it’s gone from a 3 inch prickly stem peeking out of my mulch bed, to a 16 inch bine climbing to the sky. It’s pretty cool to check on it each day and see noticeable changes taking place. Hop plants come from the Cannabaceae family, so it’s no coincidence that they resemble their slightly less legal cousin, the marijuana plant. Hopefully the neighbors don’t freak when the bine gets tall and call the cops thinking I’m cultivating a pot operation. 

I’m planning to get the trellis system set up this weekend so the plant has somewhere to latch onto, otherwise the weight of the leaves, cones and thick bine will eventually destroy it. Giving the bine something to attach itself to also frees up the plant to focus its energy primarily on producing cones, and not maintaining a solid support structure.

My other two hop varieties, Fuggle and Horizon, have not fared as well. Planted them in a different spot in the back yard, and have yet to see any signs of life. From what I’ve read they’re not as hearty as Cascade, and may be a bit temperamental given our widely varying weather conditions day to day here in Minnesota. So I’m thinking about digging up the rhizomes and either replanting in an area that receives a little more sunlight, or possibly dropping them into a couple large flower pots and bringing them inside to keep them a little more protected until they can gain a foothold.

Can’t wait for the actual cones to start developing!