During a brief period every fall, when fresh hop brews are released, beer fans are in hop heaven. Those fans who can get their hands on them, anyway.
The salivation starts around the September harvest season when many of these beers made with freshly picked hops begin hitting (and quickly disappearing from) shelves and tap lines. “With our 10-barrel system, 20 kegs of beer is what we have a year,” said Town Hall Brewery brewmaster Mike Hoops of his Fresh Hop 100. “In most cases, that goes within 14 days.”
Hoops has saved a bit of his Fresh Hop 100, along with 20-plus varieties from around the state and country for Saturday’s Fresh Hop Fest at Town Hall Lanes — one of the brewpub’s offshoot bars. The south Minneapolis bowling alley tavern is throwing a parking-lot bash that gives beer fiends a late-season opportunity to try a smattering of these citrusy sensations in one place.
Those late to the party may not have been able to snag the most in-demand fresh or wet hop beers like Surly Wet, which will be available at the fest. But the brewing process is even more time-sensitive, as the key is getting the hops from bine to brew as quickly as possible. “If you get these hop buds and squeeze them in your hand, you’ve got some moisture that’s left behind,” Hoops said. “That’s what we’re trying to capture, because it’s got a different flavor than hops generally do. We’re trying to get that before that moisture evaporates.”
When using fresh hops as opposed to the dried and pelletized forms most brewing systems are set up for, each batch requires approximately five times the normal amount of hops (which also makes it more expensive to produce). Hoops said the first year they brewed a fresh hop beer they stayed until 3 a.m. trying to unclog their system of all the buds.
“Those were always my least favorite brew days at Town Hall,” recalled Josh Bischoff, who worked there before becoming head brewer at Indeed Brewing Company. “But it was also the beer I enjoyed drinking the most, so it was kind of bittersweet. By the time it actually came out on tap I usually forgot about the brew day.”
The race against the clock can be tricky when plants are being shipped from other regions like the hops-rich Pacific Northwest. Both Hoops and Bischoff, recalled a shipment to Town Hall a few years ago that had partially rotted just three days after being harvested. “Ideal conditions, you’re using it hours after they’re picked, but being in the Midwest you have to work with what you have,” Bischoff said.
This year Indeed released two wet hops — a red ale made with Minnesota-grown Cascade hops and a sessionable pale ale brewed with Mosaic hops from Washington. While Bischoff said he was able to brew with the in-state hops 12 hours after they were picked, he expected a 48-hour turnaround with the Mosaics. However, the refrigerated delivery truck pulled up to the Minneapolis brewery 14 hours late, meaning at least one of his brewers had to work into the wee hours. “There’s definitely some variables when you’re dealing with fresh hops from another part of the country,” he said.
Perhaps it’s those “variables” that are creating demand for locally grown hops. George Shetka, who owns Forest Lake’s Hippity Hops Farms with his wife Leah, said they easily could have sold four times the 600 pounds they harvested this year. The couple plans to double the size of their fields over the next two years.