Sisters Fresh Hop Fest, and some thoughts on fresh hop beers

I attended and thoroughly enjoyed this year’s Sisters Fresh Hop Festival this past Saturday, and while I don’t have a review with pictures per se (as the setting, layout, attendance, and so on was basically the same as in past years, and you can review some of my past reviews and photos for it here and here), I do have some commentary about it and some general thoughts on fresh hop beers.

Sisters Fresh Hop Fest 2014 glass
I seem to capture this shot at this Fest every year. I can’t help it, it’s just a cool angle to capture!

All in all I had 11 tasters of the 34 fresh hop beers that were pouring, as well as sips of a few others my friend Sandi was drinking. The beers I had were:

  1. Old Town Brewing, Sterling Kolsch (Sterling hops)
  2. Base Camp Brewing, Wet-Hop Dry Hopped Helles (Cascade hops)
  3. Ground Breaker Brewing, Meridian Fresh Hop Pale Ale (Meridian hops)
  4. Deschutes Brewery, Fresh Hop Oktoberfest (Willamette hops)
  5. Portland Brewing, MacTarnahan’s Fresh Hop Amber Ale (Unknown variety)
  6. Old Town Brewing, Cent’s and Censability Fresh Hop Pale (Centennial)
  7. Rat Hole Brewing, Fresh Hop Rye IPA (Unknown, donated variety)
  8. Full Sail Brewing, Fresh Hop Pale Ale (Simcoe hops)
  9. Three Creeks Brewing, Hop Wrangler Fresh Hop Red (Chinook hops)
  10. Three Mugs Brewing, Big D’s Memorial (Simcoe hops)
  11. Fort George Brewery, Fresh IPA (Simcoe hops)

I also had a taste of 10 Barrel’s Big Daddy Fresh (Centennials), Rat Hole’s Blood Orange Fresh Hop Pale (donated variety, though Susan Toepfer from the brewery told me the majority were Chinooks in that one), and possibly some others.

My favorites from this list were the Old Town Sterling Kolsch, the MacTarnahan’s, and two of the Simcoe beers—Full Sail’s Pale and Fort George’s Fresh IPA. In the end I voted for the Sterling Kolsch—every year the Fest awards the “Golden Bunny” people’s choice award to the favorite beer, though I haven’t heard who won.

One of the things I really like about this Beer Fest—a realization which really only gelled for me this year, whereas in previous years I would look at the hops used but would choose based on brewery and beer style that sounded good—is that it offers up the opportunity to sample a wide variety of hop varieties side-by-side, in beers that are not entirely dissimilar. It’s a great showcase to understand how each variety differs in real time; it’s also a good way to test some theories. For instance, theory: Centennial hops are “off” this year.

I’m basing this on an admittedly small sample size and an anecdote. But there is something in this year’s crop of (fresh) Centennial hops which seems to be lending a harsh, sharp, almost metallic (or steely) flavor to the beer; astringent and perhaps overly tannic. I first picked this up a couple of Fridays ago when I had a pint of 10 Barrel’s The Boss, a fresh pale-amber ale using these hops, and it was a bit off-putting (especially when expecting that bright, fresh, green character).

10 Barrel’s Big Daddy Fresh, also brewed with fresh Centennials, had that exact same character. However, it was brewed by Shawn Kelso in Boise, Idaho, on a completely different system than the one here in Bend that The Boss was brewed on. So my suspicion strongly became the hops. I went back for Old Town’s Cent’s and Censability in large part because I wanted to sample their Centennial beer, and while it wasn’t nearly as prevalent as in the 10 Barrel brews, that same sharp and astringent-to-the-point-of-metallic was there, in the background.

I mentioned this theory to a fellow sharing the table with us, who happened to be from Independence (Oregon), and he confirmed it and told me he’d pulled out all of his Centennial hop vines this year. Now, I don’t know that this is damning evidence, but that’s not entirely the point. The point is, were it not for this Fest and the opportunity to sample several fresh Centennial hop beers in one sitting (not to mention chatting with random beer fans), I may have been left just thinking I had a not-so-great beer. Instead, I have some idea how this year’s fresh hops are affecting beer in general.

(Note to self: talk to some hop growers and see if this theory holds up further.)

The best hops I sampled this year were the Simcoes, in at least two of the three Simcoe-hopped beers I had. (The Three Mugs Big D’s Memorial was so big—9.3% abv—it just obliterated any fresh hop character.) They were very orange-y and smelled fantastically fruity, and had a spicy, peppery flavor like fresh mustard greens that was really appealing. I need to acquire some cans of Fort George’s Fresh IPA just for that Simcoe alone.

I wish I had polled the various brewers as to how they managed their fresh hop additions. For the most part, I know most brewers only use fresh hops at the end of the boil, for the aroma additions, and use “regular” dried/kilned hops for bittering. (“End of the boil” encompasses late hop additions, whirlpool, hopback, etc.) I do that myself, though the very first fresh hop beer I brewed used all fresh hops for bittering and aroma—and I remember it was very vegetal-y up front, holding a heavy, musty, overly-boiled-greens character. The real benefit in using fresh hops is to get that fresh presence, which you don’t get from boiling long.

However, Susan Toepfer (Rat Hole Brewing) told me in addition to a majority of Chinook hops (donated) in their Blood Orange Pale, they also use all fresh for bittering, aroma, everything. Of course, Rat Hole is still small enough that it’s not impractical to do so, whereas larger breweries on much larger systems simply can’t—the volume of fresh hops would be too great.

It begs the question: are fresh hop beers really “fresh hop” if you don’t use all fresh hops throughout the brew? I would say yes.

Deep thoughts. In general, the Sisters Fresh Hop Fest was a great event to enjoy a whole bunch of one of my favorite seasonal “styles” of beer, and if you get a chance to attend a similar event, do so! The Portland Fresh Hops Fest is coming up this weekend at the Oaks Amusement Park. Get all the details here.

Oh and I also see there at the first-ever St. Paul Fresh Hops Fest is taking place the following weekend, in St. Paul, Oregon. So there’s another opportunity. Get these beers while you can!


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