Hops - the backbone of aroma and bitterness in beer - are fickle things. They are impossible to grow in the wrong climate and they produce next to nothing in the first few years. They’re susceptible to pests and they are poisonous to dogs. If done right, they take a lot of space.
Hops also have a short shelf life. They are best right as they’re picked - typically in September or early October - and degrade the moment they leave the vine. Which is a huge problem because, let’s face it, we insist on modern convenience, expecting great hop taste all year round. So hops are dried, preserved and made stable. This is the hop flavor we’re used to - delicious, but not as perfect as it could be.
That’s when we get to the idea of fresh hopping. Fresh hopping - also known as “wet hopping” - is as simple as it sounds: you brew some beer and, at the right time, you drop a few pounds of fresh-picked hops into the pot while boiling wort. The result, as you might imagine, is a fresher, more vibrant hop taste. Hops you can smell when you open the bottle. Hops that are defined more by their plant-iness than by their bitterness.
Fresh hopping isn’t just a fancy name - it’s a literal interpretation of the process, which involves overnight shipment or immediate delivery of hops picked right off of the vine. This ensures a travel time of anywhere from four hours to just over 12 hours - immediate use, when the oils are still at their peak.
Because fresh hopping depends on fresh hops, the brewing and bottling window for a fresh hopped beer is pretty narrow. Most fresh hopped beers come out around the same time: fall. It’s a weird juxtaposition: the perfect season for malty Octoberfests and toasty winter ales also happens to be the perfect time to rush out fresh-hopped brews - beers that would be best appreciated during the warmer summer days.
Schell’s most recent Stag Series release - Stag Series #6 Citra Pils - is one of these “summer-beer-in-winter” anomalies. Instead of deep orange or light brown, Citra Pils is pale and wheaty, which follows through to the taste - it’s an almost wheaty pilsner with a blast of citris and hop aroma that seems a little out of place with the threat of snow on the horizon. It’s a beer that gives Boulevard’s 80 Acre a run for its summery-hops money (and bests it, in my opinion).
Schell’s Citra Pils is an anomaly. Most fresh-hopped beers seem to be adaptations of a brewery’s existing IPA lines with the hop flavor turned to 11. Thanks to a recent fresh hop flight at Bros Brasserie, we were able to compare Citra Pils’ wheat/hops combination with some more traditional takes on the fresh hopped ale - two from Deschutes (Chasin’ Freshies, an IPA that also wins the award for stupidest name, and an American pale ale called Hop Trip) - and Northern Hemisphere Harvest from Sierra Nevada, which claims the mantle of “first domestic mass produced wet hop ale.”
Of the four beers we tried, Citra Pils came up short. Way short. It’s a good beer, but it doesn’t possess the “poke you in the face” freshness that a traditional fresh hopped beer exhibits. What’s more, two of the beers - Harvest and Hop Trip - were so close in taste and aroma that we had a hard time distinguishing them. Which means, by process of elimination, we begrudgingly coined a champion - the ill-named Chasin’ Freshies, an IPA that features an heirloom strain of Cascade hops from a single field and a bunch of additional hippy nonsense.
My history with fresh hopping is hit and miss. Three Autumn Brew Reviews ago, I tried a grapefruit-infused fresh-hopped Crooked Tree IPA that was so wonderful I can still taste it. This past year I tried a fresh hopped Deer Brand from Schell’s (tasted like feet) but was rewarded later with a glass of Surly Wet, which is the ultimate in fresh hopped deliciousness.
Fact is, despite the name, Chasin’ Freshies is pretty great. Just as, given the right situation, Citra Pils is pretty great, and I’m sure when experienced on their own the two beers are pretty great.
One thing is for sure - they’re all fresh. It’s the beer equivalent of a loaf of fresh baked bread or salad with fresh herbs. It’s as close to the source as you can get, and it’s a welcome reminder of the promise of summer - even if we’re knee-deep in scarves and coats.