God Bless FHA!
A relatively recent phenomenon in the craft brewing world is the ascendancy of the Fresh (or Wet) Hop Ale. Similar to wine in its yearly appearance and tiny window of harvest, these lovely, rich, floral beers are the perfect complement to our increasingly moist weather. On the whole, they are less bitter than beers made from kilned hops, allowing them to be incredibly hoppy, yet still eminently approachable. They tend to be too heavy to be summer quaffers, but not yet as dense and hearty as the winter beers which will soon be on their way. That said, they are as distinctive from one another as the hop varietals used in their creation.
Currently we offer four of these exciting beers here at John's (hopefully with more to come!), and as a demonstration of our devotion to our beloved customers, I have tasted and reviewed them. Perhaps the most interesting thing I found in tasting through these beers side by side was the marked presence of what we in the wine world (I am the Beer-Lovin' Corkdork, after all) call terroir. In case you don't know the term, here's a short primer: terroir literally means “soil” in French, and, though it looks like “terrier,” it's pronounced “tair-war.” It's used to describe the nexus of weather, mesoclimate, drainage, type of soil, sun exposure, etc., and the resultant effects on the flavor of a wine. You'll hear it said that a certain wine is “terroir-driven,” or that a certain varietal of grape “displays its terroir” better than others. This isn't just meaningless wine-babble (nor are most things labeled such, for that matter, if they are properly used- the growing tendency among certain writers and people in the industry to dismiss sophisticated wine vocabulary as snobbish obfuscation is inaccurate, and unfair, but that's another posting), it is a real thing you can taste.
Long story short, I detected clear, ringing elements of terroir in the first three of these beers, and I can only ascribe it to the fresh hops being used. Though I have never heard it described thus, there is every reason to believe that hops can express terroir in more or less the same way as grapes, and I tasted this borne out, probably a result of the un-kilned hops expressing their flavors in all their unadulterated glory. So when you read below that a certain beer reminded me of Pinot Noir, remember the terroir lesson- that's what I mean. I believe it to be the flavors of Oregon (and Washington) soil singing through these brews: notes of earth, mushrooms, forest floor, stones, fir needles, etc. And this cross-description (organoleptic cross-pollination?) is reciprocal- often one can taste notes of fresh hops in a good wine!
OK, let's get down to it! Do excuse me if hop varietal info is in variance with reality; in researching this piece I found some inconsistencies in my sources... Too much FHA, I guess!
Sierra Nevada Harvest 2007 $3.99/ 22 oz.
On the bottle, the claim is made that Sierra Nevada were the first brewery in America to produce a fresh hop ale, a claim to a certain extent refuted by Hale's below. Let's call it the first “true” fresh hop ale, by which I mean a beer specifically brewed to be a limpid exposition of hops (Hale's O'Brien's is a completely different style of beer).
This was the least floral of the three “true” FHAs I tasted, and my guess is that this is a reflection of the longer distance the hops traveled to reach the kettle. Nonetheless, it it delicious, with a powerful, IPA-like nose displaying peppery hops, roasted hazelnuts, and a citric bite. On the palate it broadens a bit, white pepper wound around an unmistakably Sierra Nevada core. Compellingly, it shows a marked, Riesling-like minerality on the long, crisp finish.
HOPS: Cascade and Centennial
Bridgeport Hop Harvest $5.75/ 22 oz.
The nose on this beer is just gorgeous, exploding from the glass with sexy, feminine aromas of super-hoppy grapefruit, green peppercorns, and (here it comes) noticeably Pinot-like scents of rose petals and forest floor. This backbone of terroir runs through the beer's palate as well, with fine carbonation and layers of rich, spicy, ultra-floral flavors. The finish is long and just off-dry. An absolutely wonderful beer, whose hops traveled the least distance- a mere 30 miles north to Portland, where the brewing of this beer swathed the entire Pearl District in curtains of hoppy yumminess...
HOPS: Cascade, Centennial, Golding, Oregon Nugget
Deschutes Hop Trip $3.79/ 22 oz.
Maybe my favorite of these three, but it's hard to say. Who's more beautiful, Julie Delpy or Scarlett Johannson? A nice choice to have, there, Paris... The bouquet of this beer is something to be experienced, possibly the most delicious, complex aroma I have ever gotten in a beer. In its preening, sunny, floral scents, in its pure, visceral, erotic appeal, it simply blew away every Belgian or Super-stout I have smelled- apples and oranges, I know, but I tire of certain beer reviewers' monochromatic obsession with massive, dark beers. This beer shows, inarguably, that a lighter-styled beer can hold all of the complexity- and maybe more- than a heavy, dark beer (I'm looking at you, Mikkeller!).
The nose is a dazzlingly tropical hop-bomb, redolent of coconut, papaya, pommelo, citron, white grapefruit, and stargazer lilies. On the tongue you get apples, Comice pears, and cherryskins, with a marked unctuousness (reminded me of hop resins, texturally) to its silky mouthfeel. The finish goes on and on, with a touch of sweetness balancing the slight hoppy bitterness. Stunning.
Hale's O'Brien's Harvest Ale $1.49/ 12 oz.
As related in the Northwest Brewing News, brewer J. Kipling said Hale's was already brewing this beer when he arrived there 18 years ago. Given that this brew does contain wet hops, that makes it easily the oldest FHA consistently made in the States... but... This is quite different in style from the above three. In the interest of accuracy of nomenclature, it drinks like, and should perhaps therefore be called, a hoppy Northwestern Oktoberfest. But whatever...
The nose is rich and round, filled with roasted nuts, chocolate, and caramel. On the palate it drinks rich and smooth, with a creamy mouthfeel and a long, pleasantly bitter finish.
HOPS: Amarillo and Centennial
There are many more variations on the FHA theme appearing these days, including offerings from Dogfish Head, Ninkasi, and Great Divide. They are all worth trying, though my Northwestern chauvinism demands that I point out that richness of resiny hop flavors fades the longer the trip is from field to vat. That said, Great Divide (Colorado) made an FHA so good it made my head spin last year, and not because I drank three 22s, either...
Drink up! And you can always email me at email@example.com with comments, questions, or rants.