Fresh tastes so much better.
That's a lesson most Portlanders learned a decade or more ago, when farmers markets and restaurants with chalkboards listing local providers became enmeshed in the city's culture. We all know the unmatched quality of a tomato from your own backyard or a bunch of purple heirloom carrots from New Seasons. Lately, it seems like even people in Wichita and Dubuque have come to appreciate the subtle superiority of things that come to them quickly and from nearby.
But there's a very special fresh product too few Portlanders have embraced. It's one of the finest and rarest fresh products made. It's not something Portland invented, but it is something that exists in very few places in the world, and probably nowhere with the same quality and quantity as you'll find here.
We're talking about fresh-hop beers.
If this is new to you: Hops are the little, acid-rich flower cones used to give beer its bitter bite and pungent scent. Virtually all beers include hops, almost always dried and preserved. Hops are grown commercially only in a few places in Europe, in Washington's Yakima Valley, and in the small, German farming towns of the Willamette Valley. Almost every hop in the country is grown within a three hour drive of Portland. In those places, it's possible to brew beer with hops before they've been dried to create a beer that has a distinctive living flavor—it's the difference between canned fruit salad and fresh fruit salad.
Fresh-hop beers, like still-wet Netarts Bay oysters or the local Beaujolais Nouveau-style wines that are starting to crop up, are about a fleeting moment. Just-harvested hops do not behave like their dried counterparts in the kettle, meaning you never really know what you're going to get until the beer is finished. And those flavor compounds also seem to be quite brittle—they change from tap to tap and day to day.
Just about 10 years ago, the hop harvest became a phenomenon that drinkers were interested in, too. Starting with the first harvests in late August, local brewers get up at dawn and drive down to Mount Angel or St. Paul to get batches of just-plucked hops for a once-a-year beer. A few weeks later—like, right now—that beer is tapped.
Timing is touchy. This summer's heat brought early harvests at most farms—see our interview with a hop farmer. By the time this paper disappears from news boxes, these beers will be nearing their functional expiration date. By the first week of October, when the Portland Fresh Hops Fest rolls around, the vast majority will be past their prime. That's OK—there are earlier fresh-hop festivals if you're willing to drive an hour, and there's a killer lineup of other beer festivals in Portland this fall. We have a full list, starting with this weekend's Vegan Beer & Food Festival.
But when you get a great Portland-brewed fresh-hop beer, there's really nothing else like it. That's true anywhere in the world—Jeff Alworth explains why.
Objectively speaking, Oregon makes the best fresh-hop beers—the winners in that category at the Great American Beer Festival for the last two years have come from here. And after sampling everything we could find from this year's crop, it seems like Portland brewers are getting better and better with them.
See for yourself—right now, and not for much longer.