It begins a couple weeks after Labor Day as the summer heat begins to ebb. There’s no official start date to the season, which depends on the hop harvest. Notice starts to spread by word of mouth. A sighting! The first of the fresh-hop beers come in a trickle, but soon there’s a steady flow, and then, by the first of October, a flood from breweries around the state. Made from fresh-plucked, undried hops rushed straight from the field to the brewery, these beers are wholly unique. They seem to vibrate not just with flavor and aroma but life, the way a just-blossoming flower does when struck by the spring sun.
This is the ultimate time to savor Pacific Northwest beers, an essential celebration of hops and harvest, easily the most adored event on the Oregon beer calendar. Locals love these beers not just because they are unlike any made elsewhere — though they are that — but because they are so fleeting that if you don’t snap them up when they’re fresh, you miss their rare character. They don’t age well and don’t travel, so fresh-hop beers almost never leave the state. If you want to sample the most original and delightful flavors hops can deliver, you have to visit and try them for yourself. Here’s what you need to know.
What Are Fresh-Hop Beers?
Nearly every beer made in the world uses dried hops. The strobile (cone) of the climbing bine Humulus lupulus (less scientifically known as common hops) gives beer bitterness along with the flavors and aromas of fruit, flowers or forests. Typically, they are taken to a drying kiln, baled and sent to chilled warehouses.
Fresh hops, by contrast, are never dried. Family hop growers have developed close relationships with Oregon-based breweries over the past decade or so, and during fresh-hop season, they stay in close communication. When the moment of perfect ripeness arrives, farmers call the brewery and tell them when their hops will be picked. Brewers fire up their mash tuns and dispatch a truck to race back to the brewery with these little green jewels within an hour or two of harvest. Each minute the hop is separated from the bine is precious, so the beers can’t be made very far from the fields in which they grew.
Similar to how the flavor of dried and fresh basil differs, the delicate nature of fresh hops means they simply taste different when compared to conventional hops. As in basil, the chemical constituents of hops — the essential oils and acids — are most vivid when fresh. A floral, lightly grapefruity dried Cascade hop, for example, smells more like a blossoming orange orchard, with jammy, mandarin flavors when fresh. The beers that result from these hops are unlike any made with conventional hops. They have the qualities only those undried hops possess.
Get ’Em While They’re Fresh
While perfectly ripe examples can be elusive, these beers are not hard to find in season. The compounds that give fresh hops their zing are volatile, and they start dissipating shortly after the beer is made. They’re at their peak just briefly and will wane in intensity within days of that moment. A beer at perfection one week will have lost some life a week later. Fresh-hop beers must therefore be served extremely fresh, and that means being served on draft and as soon after they’re kegged as possible.
But that’s what makes this such a thrilling time to sip beer around the state. Fresh-hop season in Oregon is so much fun precisely because it’s no more predictable than wildflower season in the Columbia River Gorge. Fresh-hop hunters know this, and they roam the pubs in packs, hoping to catch sight of pristine specimens.
The breweries and pubs of Portland, the Willamette Valley and Bend offer the richest hunting grounds due to their proximity to the hop fields. In recent years, brewpubs offering a tantalizing mix of fresh-hop beers have included: Breakside Brewery, Widmer Brothers, Baerlic Brewing, Hopworks Urban Brewery and Level Beer in Portland; Gilgamesh Brewing and Salem Ale Works in Salem; Ninkasi Brewing Company in Eugene; Crux Fermentation Project, Deschutes Brewery and GoodLife Brewing in Bend; and Wild Ride Brewing in Redmond. Such breweries will typically offer up to eight fresh-hop beers, each with different hops harvested at different times, and release them over the course of the season. These pubs begin to give their taps over to fresh-hop beers, so that by October as many as half the taps might be occupied by them.
Visit a Fresh-Hop Festival
The very best place to sip up this bounty is at a fresh-hop festival, and such celebrations are conveniently scattered across the state. Hood River has the oldest and most established fest (Hood River Hops Fest, October), founded in 2003. You’ll also find festivals in Sisters (Sisters Fresh Hop Festival, September), Portland (Fresh Hop Pop-Up Beer Fest, September-October), and Portland Fresh Hops Festival, September). Keep an eye on brewery calendars in and around these cities, as many will often host fresh-hop events with short notice. Festivals feature dozens of different fresh-hop beers with different hop varieties and beer styles. It’s a way not only to develop an eye for that unmistakable “fresh” quality but to see how varied they can be in different beers. There’s no better way to survey the state’s offering than attending one of these fests.
If You Go: If you’re planning a visit, shoot for the first week in October. The harvest arrives at slightly different times each year, but that week is always high season. Consider building your stay around one of the festivals, which begin in late September. Also plan to spend at least one full day visiting pubs and breweries so you can enjoy these beers by the pint. Fresh-hop season is a secret Oregonians have kept to themselves, but it’s too good not to share with the world.