Among the 25 medals won by Oregon brewers at the 2013 Great American Beer Festival, one category I was especially happy about was the “Fresh Hop Ale” category. Portland’s Old Town Brewing won the gold for its Cent’s and Censability, while perennial juggernaut Barley Browns took the bronze for a fresh-hop version of its Pallet Jack IPA (the regular version won gold in IPA — the most hotly-contested category of the festival). Only the silver won by Ohio’s Fat Heads Breweryprevented an Oregon sweep — and coincidentally that brewery is working on a Portland outpost right now.
It’s not surprising that Oregon would fare so well in that category, given our proximity to the best hops in the nation and the exploding popularity of fresh hop beers here. Kudos are also due to the Oregon Brewers Guild, who used their table at GABF to highlight fresh hop beers, as shown by the list in the accompanying photo. I persuaded OBG CEO Brian Butenschoen to write “FRESH” next to the one brewery — Oakshire — that applied the annoying “wet hop” label to its beer, but couldn’t get him to cross out the offensive W-word. This was actually the list for Friday’s session; three of the four beers that had poured on Thursday were also fresh hop beers, from Alameda, Deschutes, and Hopworks (and correctly labeled as such). Jeff Alworth posted a plea last week for the OBG to do more to promote the fresh hop season. He’s quite right about that, but it did make me happy to see them use their GABF space almost exclusively to showcase Oregon fresh hop beer.
The gold medal winner from Old Town did not place very high on my personal fresh hop rankings this year. It was a good example, but I thought Barley Brown’s FH Pallet Jack was much better — it just missed being put into my “must try” category. Similarly, I wasn’t blown away by Fat Heads’ silver medal Trail Head Pale Ale when I tried it at the GABF: I much preferred a fresh hop IPA called Hop Stalker the brewery were also pouring. But there’s no accounting for tastes, and a lot of fresh hop flavor is lost just getting beer in and out of a bottle for the festival judging, not to mention any rough handling these beers might endure on their way across the country to Colorado.
I wasn’t very systematic about any of my GABF tasting, and my fresh hop explorations were no exception. But I did keep an eye out for them. Here are the ones I tried from beyond the Pacific Northwest, roughly in order of preference:
- Fat Heads (Cleveland, OH) Hop Stalker: a really well-done FH IPA, even though the brewery called it “wet-hopped”.
- Blue Corn (Santa Fe, NM) Paonia Wet Hop: nice fresh-hop flavor; the hops came from a Colorado farm not far from Santa Fe.
- City Star (Berthoud, CO) Fresh Hop Revolver IPA: silly to call something this mild an IPA, but the brewers did get the fresh hop flavor right.
- Fat Heads Trail Head: the silver medalist in the category; it was OK, but didn’t have as much fresh flavor as the brewery’s other one.
- Swamp Head (Gainesville, FL) Gainesville Green: this gets an A for effort, flying fresh hops from Yakima diagonally across the country; not a bad beer, but the dosage of 3 lbs./barrel didn’t give it much fresh flavor.
You have to respect Swamp Head for the audacity of making a fresh hop beer in Florida, even if it didn’t quite come together. (Another sign of Swamp Head’s good bad attitude was the “Floridian Black Ale” label it applied to its very tasty beer called Darkwater.) On the other hand, a Fat Heads brewer I talked to outside the festival got somewhat offended when I got on my soapbox and told him he shouldn’t call his fresh hop beer “wet-hopped”. He had a novel argument for maintaining that distinction: (paraphrasing) “if you pick the same hops from the same field, and only dry some of them but use them both the same day, you have to be able to call one fresh and one wet”. I still maintain that “dry” and “fresh” are better descriptions, but anyway congratulations to Fat Heads for winning a medal that says Fresh Hop on it.
Outside the festival, I found a few Colorado fresh hop ales still on tap, but the only one that I really got any green flavor from was Strange Brewing’s IPAphany (this was a batch that was also dry-hopped with fresh-hops). The ones I tried from Ska, Elevation, and Avery were very good beers, but missing the fresh flavor I wanted.