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Let Me Introduce Fresh Hop IPA, Part 1.

The newest Lips of Faith, Fresh Hop IPA is here, packaged up and ready for you to drink.   This beer took a lot of work, timing and logistics from a lot of people.  My New Belgium co-worker, Kenny Bloggins, lives and works up in the Seattle area and when he heard that a fresh hop beer was in the works he called me up with the idea of a co-blog-eration (that's a pun on collaboration (get it?)) with the fresh hopping of Fresh Hop IPA.  Kenny's idea was that he would head down to the hop harvest, shoot some photos and write up a report.  Then I would be at the brewery when the hops showed up (for the beer making) and I would shoot some photos and write up a report from this end, a two piece blog-extravaganza (like the White Stripes (but beer writing not music making))!  So today is part one- the harvest and hop story as told by Mr. Bloggins.  Part two will be the brewing and drinking of Fresh Hop IPA by yours truly, and it will follow this coming Thursday. 

 

So here is Part One.  Take it away Kenny-

 

For the second year in a row, I’ve been fortunate enough to join some of our production & raw materials procurement staff for hop selection in Yakima, WA. From Seattle where I live, it’s an easy jaunt over Snoqualmie Pass to “the East Side” where nearly all of North America’s hops production & hops-related business takes place.  This year’s trip was a little different than last year’s however, as the impetus for this visit, which happened right in the heart of the harvest, was to select batches of as yet un-harvested hops to be used in a new Lips Of Faith beer, a Fresh Hop IPA.  A big group of NBB folks are still slated to come out to Yakima for the “normal” selection in a couple weeks, once harvest of all the varieties is complete, but this particular trip was all about the Amarillo, Centennial & Cascade varieties, all of which had just come into maturity & were ready for harvest. 

NBB raw materials buyer, Alex Jesse, had the awesome – & awesomely difficult – task of coordinating with two suppliers – Roy Farms & Gamache Farms – as well as with logistics folks & our production team to fine tune the whole process of selecting, harvesting, transporting & ultimately baptizing these beautiful, fragrant flowers into an in-process brew.  Joining her on this adventure was our assistant brewmaster & main beer-builder, Grady Hull. Together with the growers, we would hand-select the best lots of these three varieties to be harvested & sent back to the Mothership for our Fresh Hop IPA.

As I left Seattle under a cool, gray marine layer & made my way eastward, it was impossible not to reflect upon the unique geographic & climatic conditions that make the PNW such a productive & dynamic agricultural region.  Climbing up the west side of the Cascades, the Pacific moisture clung in dense masses to the steep fir & cedar-studded slopes of the surrounding mountains.  As I topped-out at the pass, shafts of sunlight began poking through the cloud cover, revealing bright blue skies to the east. Such is the way of the rain shadow.  The Yakima Valley is a 6,000 square mile expanse of high desert known to beer lovers for its hops production, but to Washingtonians it’s also synonymous with wine grapes, apples, cherries, apricots, peaches & corn, among other delights (such as applets & cotlets).  Driving through the Valley this time of year, you see all of these as far as the eye can see, but your olfactory sense is dominated by the pungent aroma of hops.   A combination of excellent arable soil, a fortunate situation in the rain shadow of the Cascades, a northern latitude that provides super long summer days, & it’s proximity to the Yakima river for irrigation, is the reason the Valley is such an agricultural powerhouse.

Our Amarillo supplier, the Gamache Family, has been farming in the Valley for 5 generations.  Pulling up to the farm can feel a bit like stepping back in time, as I’m sure it looked much the same fifty or a hundred years ago, with it’s neatly cropped lawn, vintage farm trucks & whitewashed barns & production buildings.  And man, that beautiful aroma is so intoxicating!  For the most part, anyone working in the fields or at the picking facility would be covered in a thick, fragrant layer of bright green dust.  On the day I arrived, we spent most of our time with Darren Gamache, who’s currently at the helm of production on the farm.  He’s not only a brilliant agricultural technician with a PhD to prove it, but he’s also extremely passionate about craft beer & the role his product plays in our labor of love. As a beer lover, homebrewer & lifelong hops farmer, he has a unique and intimate understanding of what the hops consumer is looking for, & said without the slightest trace of humor or irony, “I just want to help people make better beer.”  Much like brewing itself, there’s both an art & a science to farming. Darren clearly relies on both.  From the design of his state-of-the-art custom-built production facility, to countless hours spent on futuristic hardware & software in the lab examining materials samples from his crops to parse out all of the compounds & their associated properties, Darren is very devoted to the science of hops production.  While you & I might say, “Cascades tend to be grassy, citrusy & a little bit like grapefruit,” Darren would talk about Cascade’s inherent polyphenols & concentrations of myrcene & other compounds, how they differ from, say, Centennials or Citras, & exactly what they all contribute to its aromatics.  On the other hand, where the rest of the hops production industry relies on “dry matter analysis” of hops to determine harvest readiness, Darren says with a smirk, “I just use my nose.”  His love for the craft beer industry drives him to propagate & keep alive varieties that are not in demand & will not make money, but due to slumping production trends in the UK, could foreseeably be lost forever to the American brewer.

Amarillo hops are a hot domestic variety whose flavor/aroma profile usually contains descriptors like “citrus”, “orange”, “grapefruit”. Lesser known is the story behind the development of this variety – it was a total fluke.  A rogue plant was found growing in one of the Gamache fields. It looked different, & upon further inspection it certainly smelled different.  This can happen when a random male plant growing as a weed nearby to female crop plants accidentally pollinates a female, yielding an unintended hybrid.  Darren’s sensory perceptiveness is so astute that he recognized this variation immediately & he really liked what he smelled. Lab analysis confirmed it actually was different.  It takes time to build up a crop from one plant, but that’s exactly what the Gamaches did.  Now Amarillo is a trademarked variety & a household term amongst commercial craft brewers & homebrewers alike. 

We spent most of our time touring the fields & the facility with Darren, smashing hop cones in our hands & inhaling the delicious vapors through our noses, trying to suss out which lots were the best for our beer.  A damn fine way to spend a day! 

…which brings us back to the whole reason for the visit – the Fresh Hop IPA.  So, what’s so special or  different about harvesting for a Fresh Hop (or “wet hop”) beer? Unless you’re making a Fresh Hop beer, you are sure to be working with hops that have been conventionally harvested & processed for storage/use at a later date – they’re cut, separated, dried & processed in any number of ways, including whole-cone, pelletized, turned into extract, or made into other “downstream” products.  Fresh Hop beer, on the other hand, presents a unique opportunity for brewers to use un-kilned, unprocessed hop cones fresh off the vine.  These hops still retain all of their moisture content (hence “wet”) & can begin to oxidize, degrade or spoil within 48 hours of picking.  Using them presents an amazing opportunity to the brewer, but also a tremendous challenge in timing beer production to the very narrow window of harvest. Typically, growers can’t offer much lead time & won’t know the actual harvest day until just a couple days out. Fields will be cleared of ready varieties in a matter of a day or two.  For Fresh Hop beers, we look for hops that are at their absolute peak of essential oil content & freshness. This means minimizing the time from when the grower deems them ready for harvest until the time of their eventual immersion in the wort that will become beer.  Because of this, Fresh Hop ales have been mainly the provenance of those brewers within striking distance of the Pacific Northwest.  For most other brewers, the time & expense associated with distance, in combination of the greater volumes needed, can be a deal breaker.

We dabbled with our first Fresh Hop IPA last year in a small batch made in collaboration with Elysian Brewing in Seattle, for our “Trip Series” of draft-only, Northwest-only beers.  Trip VI, as it was known, was one of the best things to come out of that series.  The judges at the only Fresh Hop beer festival approved of it too, giving it the silver medal at Yakima’s Fresh Hop Ale Festival.  This year, we took that same recipe & scaled it up for production & inclusion in our Lips Of Faith line.  I’d say Fort Collins is right on the cusp, at about a 15-hour trip from vine to kettle.  Of course, small batches can be taken by air, but for larger production beers, such as the one we’re making, a refrigerated truck is the only way to go; remember these hops haven’t been dehydrated, so they’re much more voluminous & heavier than what’s normally used in the brewhouse.

Once selected & picked, our fresh hops would be sorted, scaled & then wrapped & loaded into a reefer truck.  For part of our total selection mix, we actually got to use a makeshift wooden skid to redirect the flow of Amarillo cones, which were on their way to the kiln on a giant conveyor, into bins for our own use.   Once loaded, the hop truck would leave Toppenish, WA, on Saturday, on an overnighter bound for Fort Collins. The truck was outfitted with a GPS unit which was in turn linked to Alex’s computer, so she could monitor progress in real-time. At T-minus 3 hours to arrival, we would mash-in our first batch, such that the expected arrival of the hop truck at the brewery would coincide with the timing of the first fresh hop addition. That would kick-off 20 straight hours of brewing this Fresh Hop IPA.  It takes a lot of time to make four 180-hectoliter batches! 

The point of using fresh hops is to capture the purest essence of the hops when they are at their peak readiness, to showcase the aromatic compounds found in the flower’s resins. The process we use for extracting what we want from the fresh hops is to use our Lauter Tun as a giant hopback.  The Lauter Tun is normally used to separate the solid matter (grain) from the wort after mashing & before the boil.  In this case, we would have already mashed, Lautered & boiled before refilling the Lauter Tun with the wort & then adding the fresh Amarillos in at that time. The good stuff we’re after within the hops dissolves quickly when exposed to hot water, so it only rests for 10 minutes before being run-off, rapidly chilled & piped to the cellar. Thinking back on all of Alex & Grady’s planning & travel, it really seems like an awful lot of work for only 10 minutes of hops addition!  But the proof will be in the pudding, or, make that beer.  And the process of hand-selecting in the field hops that will go into our beer is a priceless opportunity & a reminder that, after all, beer is very much an agricultural product tied to the whims of climate & geography. 

 

Stay tuned for part two (Juicebox's time to shine), and we'll see you Thursday!

_Juicebox and Kenny