It's been a rough season for hop growers.
This year, farmers had to reckon with a freak, once-in-a-lifetime windstorm that toppled fields of hop bines and wildfires that threatened to contaminate crops with smoke or wipe them out entirely. And, of course, there's the virus: Yakima, Wash., is the top hop-growing region in the world, and has also been the epicenter of COVID-19 infections in the state.
Somehow, though, they pulled it off.
And now, with the Northern Hemisphere's annual hop harvest coming to a close, Oregon and Washington are currently awash with seasonal fresh hop beers that show off the limited picking window and our proximity to the growers.
Fresh hop beers are brewed almost exclusively in the Pacific Northwest—just once a year, over the period of a month. They require undried, freshly picked hop cones, typically within 24 hours of harvest.
What's the difference between the regularly hopped beers we drink year-round and the fresh kind? Think of it like cooking with dried basil from the supermarket versus fresh basil from your own garden. When done right, the lush green hop cones are still sticky and wet, and the bright yellow lupulin behind the petals can impart oily, grassy, citrusy and spicy flavors and aromas that are almost impossible to capture in beers using kiln-dried hops.
Because of their seasonal nature, and their delicate balance of volatile oils and fresh flavors, fresh hop beers are often draft only. But if there's one benefit to everyone being stuck at home, it's that breweries are bottling and canning much more of them this year.
Below is the best of what I've tried so far, and the ones I'm most excited about that are still to come. To find these beers, check the breweries first, then try one of Portland's top bottle shops: John's Marketplace, Belmont Station, Imperial Bottle Shop or BeerMongers.
BEST SO FAR
Ex Novo's Fresh Hop Eliot IPA
One of the first fresh hop beers out this year was also among the best. Ex Novo opened in North Portland in 2014 and has since expanded with locations in Beaverton and New Mexico, and it's easy to see why. This fresh hop version of its flagship Eliot IPA is everything a hop-head wants in a West Coast-style IPA: big, dusty, green aromatics, flower petals, herbs and citrus and a bitter backbone that leaves the entire beer as a showcase for the signature Oregon Centennial hop variety.
Fort George's Rock, Paper, Sterling
Most fresh hop beers are IPAs, but increasingly, brewers are attempting lagers as Fort George Brewery did with Rock, Paper Sterling. While the base beer is a light lager, it shows off more rough edges and pillowy mouthfeel than a true Pilsner. But that's OK, because while it may take inspiration from the land of Oktoberfest, it's bred far more for the Pacific Northwest palate. Utilizing the Oregon-grown Sterling hop variety that was developed as a more resilient form of German Saaz hops, the beer offer a peppery, herbal, pineapple tea-like flavor much different from the other beers you may try this season.
Crux Fermentation Project's Sabro IPA
One of the few successful fresh hop beers this year not based on a previous recipe, Sabro IPA is an aptly named expression of one of the most distinct hop varieties to become widely available in the last five years. The Sabro hop—originally tested under the name HBC 438—is known for its divisive woody coconut flavor profile. In the case of Crux's hazy, light-bodied Sabro IPA, it comes off like a hopped-up piña colada without all the sweetness.
Wayfinder's Stairs and Flowers Fresh Hop IPA
For a brewery known for lagers and German beers, Wayfinder has developed a strong IPA game over the past year. Some of that success comes down to the new "cold IPA" subtrend that is being heavily pushed by head brewer Kevin Davey. Stairs and Flowers IPA is probably the first ever fresh hop cold IPA, which translates into a clear and dry West Coast style that's cool fermented like a lager with adjuncts to lighten the body for a crisp finish similar to a light beer. With that deceptively light profile, the fresh Strata hops shine through, with notes of citrus and cannabis.
StormBreaker Brewing's Fresh Hop House Martell
North Portland's StormBreaker Brewing released a half-dozen fresh hop beers in 2020 in a variety of styles, from red ale to saison. But it's the fresh hop version of the brewery's year-round House Martell hazy IPA that caught my nose on a recent flight around its seasonals. As you pull this ale up to your lips, you are immediately hit with a burst of stank that can only be compared with putting your nose into a bag full of whole hop cones.
Von Ebert Brewing's Fresh Hop Volatile Substance
It's hard to believe it's possible to improve on one of Oregon's best IPAs already, but Von Ebert Brewing did it last year with the fresh hop version of its mainstay, Volatile Substance. A clean, crisp, modern American IPA, Volatile Substance captures a balance of berry, bubblegum, passion fruit and orange with slightly herbal, grassy and piney notes amplified by fresh Mosaic hops from Coleman Agriculture in Woodburn.
Breakside Brewery's Up Top!
Having already made some of the best fresh hop beers ever—and released more than a half-dozen great ones this year already—there's cause to get hyped about anything Breakside puts out. Up Top! is Breakside's final fresh hop release of the year, a version of its collaborative "Peaka Peaka" Zwickel-Pils with New Mexico's most acclaimed brewery, La Cumbre. What makes this beer even more intriguing is that it's a rare American take on the zwickel-style Pilsner, which is a younger and unfiltered version of the European classic. With this rendition, Breakside used its house German lager yeast and American malts, but sent the batch through a whirlpool of fresh Santiam hops known for their spicy and lemony characteristics.
Sunriver Brewing's D' Kine
The hop maestros at Central Oregon's Sunriver Brewing have consistently been able to conduct hoppy flavors to symphonic levels, and previous years of D'Kine have consistently called up the chorus. D'Kine is an unfiltered but relatively clear delivery mechanism for Mosaic hops that arrives in a puff of green smoke that will be here and gone as fast as you can exhale before hitting the vape pen again.
Fremont Brewing's Head Full of Fresh Hops
For the fresh hop version of its hazy IPA, Seattle's Fremont Brewing is using a recently released new hop variety that many predict will be beer's next big thing. Previously known as HBC 692, Talus hops were developed at Loftus Ranches in Yakima and are a cousin of Sabro said to be even more complex. Talus hops are allegedly reminiscent of pink grapefruit, citrus rinds, dried roses, pine resin, tropical fruits and sage.
Deschutes Brewery's Chasin' Freshies
Deschutes' fresh hop game has always been strong. It was one of the first breweries to bottle a fresh hop beer and release it widely with Hop Trip Pale Ale in 2004. Deschutes' 2020 release of its fresh hop IPA highlights the über-popular New Zealand hop El Dorado and the unique Neomexicanus variety Zappa. El Dorado is known for its application in hazy and milkshake smoothie IPAs, while Zappa is a rare new hop that was found in the wild and has now been cultivated for commercial use.