The perennial beer event of the year in the United States, the Great American Beer Festival (“GABF”), took place last week in Denver, CO. In addition to a half-week of traditional festival sessions, meals curated around beer at area restaurants and tap takeovers around town, GABF has a competition component whose prestige is arguably rivaled only by that of the World Beer Cup. While both contests use the beer categories defined in the Brewers Association’s Beer Style Guidelines, this year’s GABF saw the addition of a new category—Fresh Hop Ale. Previously, Fresh Hop Ale had been a subcategory of Experimental Beer.
Promoted because “[b]rewers are increasingly looking for ways to brew beers in sync with the harvest season,” and the timing of GABF this year in October corresponds with the annual (and short) hop harvest window in the States, the category garnered thirty-four entries in its debut. The Brewers Association defines Fresh Hop Ale, or Category 15, as
[a]les which are hopped exclusively with fresh and undried (“wet”) hops. This ale should have characters similar to the style to which it is brewed with the added nuances of green, almost chlorophyll-like character with fresh, new beers. These beers may be aged and enjoyed after the initial (“fresh hop”) character diminishes. Unique character from “aged” fresh hop beers may emerge, but they have yet to be identified and discussed. Brewers may provide information indicating style of beer.
The inaugural medal winners in the new category were brought to you this past weekend by the letter “C,” both in terms of origin and defining ingredients. California, which is no stranger to making hops the headliners in its beers, took home the top two spots with Sierra Nevada’s Estate Homegrown Ale and Russian River’s HopTime Harvest Ale, respectively. Tommyknocker’s Colorado IPA Nouveau cleaned up the category by adding a bronze to Colorado’s extensive medal collection on Saturday.
And the fun doesn’t stop there. Sierra Nevada’s beer uses Cascade, Chinook and Citra hops grown a few yards from the brewery. Its northern California neighbor, Russian River, picked Cascade, Chinook and Gargoyle (this is another name for California Cluster hops, so the “C” theme continues) from a nearby farm for its beer. Cascade, this time grown in Colorado, also plays lead (and the only) actor in Tommyknocker’s entry.
What do all of these “Cs” tell us? Two of America’s beer pioneering states, California and Colorado, continue to lead the way in quality with respect to crafting hop-forward beers, and their farming and handling of the plant continues to improve in a field where the Pacific northwest still dominates due to its cool, dry climate. And the previously mentioned hop varieties that are able to be grown in California and Colorado with enough quality yield appear to impart the characteristics vaguely defined in the Guidelines, but do they have anything in common?
One of the primary ways that fresh hops differ from their dried counterparts is the greater retention of their essential oils, notably humulene, myrcene, caryophyllene and farnesene. Myrcene, in particular, contributes to the “green, almost chlorophyll-like character” sought in the Style Guidelines. It’s no surprise, then, that myrcene makes up approximately 45-60 percent of the essential oils in Cascade. Similarly, 60-65 percent of Citra’s oils are myrcene, and Cluster commands 45-55 percent. Though a bit lower but still somewhat significant, 35-40 percent of Chinook’s oils are myrcene.
Not only will it be interesting to observe the evolution of medal winners in this category in years to come with respect to origin and hop varietals, but the style guidelines leave open the base style of the entries. Though this year’s winning beers were pale ales or India pale ales, could we see a fresh-hopped red ale or rye ale take a medal next year? How about a “green and freshly herbaceous“ Kölsch?