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The Ironic Timing of Fresh Hop Beers and the Great Hop Crunch of 2007

The last few weeks have seen the release of the 2007 ‘fresh hop’ beers. Brewed in connection to the annual hop harvest, the beers are usually made with hops fresh from the field (hopefully within a few hours of picking). The resulting beers tend to have some greatly expressive hop aromas and often flavors. What started with only a handful of examples (with Sierra Nevada’s Harvest Ale being the earliest version I tried) has now grown to dozens of examples.

The fresh hop phenomenon has grown so popular that it even has its own festival. The 5th annual Fresh Hop Ale Festival will be held on Saturday October 6 in the heart of hop heaven in Yakima, Washington (a region that produces more than 75-percent of the American hops used in brewing). The following breweries are scheduled to pour beers and compete in the festival’s competition.

O’Brien’s Pub in San Diego will also sponsor the Wet Hop Beer Festival, where owner Tom Nickel plans to serve 35 beers this year, double the number at the inaugural event two years ago.

The fresh hop craze isn’t limited to the Pacific Northwest. The Boston-based Harpoon Brewery recently released Harpoon Glacier Harvest Wet Hop beer as the 20th installment of its Harpoon 100 Barrel Series. Of the beer, Harpoon’s media team reports:

Wet hop beers are brewed using fresh, wet (hops contain about 60% moisture when they are first picked) hops instead of traditional dried hops. Typically, when hops are picked they are quickly dried and refrigerated to make them more suitable and consistent for brewing. This process allows brewers to use hops that were harvested in the fall throughout the following year. Alternatively, wet hops need to be used within hours of their being harvested or they will begin to rapidly degrade. Wet hops retain some of their natural oils and volatile flavors that dissipate when dried. This yields an immersed, intense hop flavor in the beer.Harpoon brewer Ray Dobens, creator of the beer, harvested the Glacier hops in Seneca New York the morning of August 13th and immediately drove them back to Boston that very afternoon in a refrigerated truck. Ray added the newly harvested hops to the brew within hours after the harvest. The fresh hops were added to a malty, copper-colored ale. The combination is a pleasing blend of fresh hop flavor and sweet malt.

Hell, even Anheuser-Busch is jumping on the bandwagon with its Front Range Fresh Harvest Hop Ale.

All of this exciting innovation comes at a time when hop growers and traders are becoming increasingly concerned about the sorry state of the world’s hop supply. Despite the recent increases in American demand for hops, worldwide hop production is down significantly. The remaining stocks are subject to poor weather, fires, and other catastrophes. While larger breweries, which buy options on ingredients years in advance, and long-term customers will likely continue to receive their hop supplies, the smaller market players may find their access to specific hop varieties very limited.

Man, I hope this doesn’t mean we’ll have to suffer through a resurgence in gruit beers.

In addition to the hop problem, brewers are already starting to get hit with price increases for malt as well. The price of several varieties of base malt has increase 5 to 10 cents a pound. Expect to see the cost of doing business reflected in your pints and six-packs soon.

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