Ideally we should be putting a Christmas beer on the Badass Bottle right now but this week we managed to get our hands on a case of Boulevard's 21st Anniversary Pale Ale, and this is a beer that by its nature cries out to be drunk as fresh as possible.
Boulevard Brewing of Kansas City is fast becoming one of my favourite breweries, and their Smokestack series of beers my favourite part of their portfolio. This is their range of higher end beers, generally bigger, more alcoholic and more just plain delicious that their regular beers. Like, for instance, the Double Wide Imperial IPA that we had here for the Badass Bottle earlier this year.
Now we have a beer that's stylistically similar, but has one very special aspect to it - fresh hops.
The vast majority of beers are brewed with hops that have either been dried to preserve them, or processed and turned into pellets. If a hop cone isn't dried within a day or two of being picked it begins to rot, so you can imagine that if a brewery is going to use fresh hops there are several problems, not the least of which is timing - getting the beer and the hops in the same place at just the right moment. That poses another problem - travel. Obviously you can't make a fresh hop beer in a place that's too far away from the hop garden unless you go to the expense of air-freighting the freshly picked cones to the brewery (see below).
With that in mind, you can understand that fresh hop (sometimes called wet hop) beers are relatively uncommon, but they're definitely worth seeking out because, as with herbs and spices, you need to use bigger quantities of fresh hops than dried (four or five times as much) to get the same amount of flavour, and this gives fresh hop beers extra flavours that you just don't get from beers brewed with dried hops or with pellets, purely because of the volume of vegetable matter.
The bitterness is less aggressive, the flavour is more subtle, and there's one particular added benefit that pleases beer geeks - an oily mouthfeel that comes from the hop oil itself which is still fresh in the cone. The heavier parts of the hop oil are about as indestructible as, for instance, nut oils, but that's not where the really good stuff is. The most delicate and fragrant hop flavours and aromas are in the essential oil, but essential oil can disappear as quickly as a wisp of smoke on a windy day, so you can see the advantages of using fresh, unprocessed hops... or any kind of foodstuff. It's for the same reason that freshly ground coffee is so good, and why Alton Brown suggests grinding your own spices - it just tastes better, framdammit!
In the UK fresh hop beers are sometimes known as Harvest Ales, and you might already be familiar with Sierra Nevada's Harvest series: Southern Hemisphere (made with New Zealand hops flown in immediately after picking), Northern Hemisphere and Estate Grown - made with ingredients grown entirely on SN's own farms and which we recently had a case of. You can still find a bottle or two of it on shelves around town. Be warned though, fresh hop beers are not cheap.
Jim Hughes, Head Beer Nerd, Alamo South Lamar “If I had all the money I’ve spent on drink… I’d spend it on drink.” ~ Sir Henry Rawlinson