fresh hops

As the sun settles low in the sky and each morning dawns just a bit darker, I know autumn will arrive before long. The crispness of the air, the rustling of leaves and the earthy scent that greets my nostrils all conspire to tell me so. And yet, there are still fresh garden delicacies to enjoy, even as my warm sweaters begin to beckon.
I find these seasonal transitions fascinating. Two worlds mashing up and creating an in-between region of experiences.
Juicy tomatoes + crisp falling leaves.
Plump blackberries + long shadows.
Fresh hops + Pumpkin Spice lattes at Starbucks (sorry, couldn’t resist!).
As you may have gathered by now, Russell my husby is definitely my co-pilot in living seasonally. In fact, he and his family have inspired me through the years by how effortlessly and naturally they live according to what is ripe. So today Mr. Hopman will introduce you to one of his most favorite harvests – HOPS:
Anyone who has ever had a beer is at some level familiar with hops.  It’s the primary flavor in your favorite brew, so I thought that you might like to know a little bit about how I use it on our suburban plot.
But, I’m getting ahead of myself already.  A bit of a back story:
I started brewing beer in the dorms while attending the University of Oregon.  It was a great way to avoid the restrictive laws of the drinking age:  I could legally purchase malt, hops, yeast and water and then presto!  A few weeks later I had a delicious five gallon batch of beer.  At that point, hops were nothing more than a vacuum sealed bag of dehydrated plant material that was used to give the beer it’s characteristic bitter punch.
I’ve come a long way since then.  After college I convinced my dad to plant a few hops vines in his garden, my brother got into brewing and grows five varieties of hops in his yard now, and I, too, grow a couple varieties myself.  It’s a  big money saver as commercial hops are one of the most expensive ingredients of beer.  Also, I feel like if you do something your self – start to finish – it just tastes better and feels more satisfying than when you purchase other people’s labor and expertise. I imagine that if you were to compare my hops to what you can purchase commercially, you wouldn’t be able to tell much of a difference, but that’s not the point.  The point is that I’m making my own beer, start to finish.
My hops grow as a vine along a line that I have strung up between our chimney and our Japanese maple tree.  Every spring they send shoots bursting up through the earth and grow several inches per day along ropes that I have connected to the main line.  In the summer, flowers form that look like little green pine cones.  In late summer, I harvest the cones and by fall the vines die down. Once winter hits there is no evidence that the hops ever existed.
Yesterday I picked all of the hop cones off my Willamette and Mt. Hood hops plants.  All of the flavor and aroma from the hops are contained in the pollen and is a volatile chemical called lupulin.  If exposed to sunlight this chemical turns from the wonderful aromatic sensation that we all know and love into a pungent, skunky and offensive experience that you may have had when beer has gone bad.
This volatile characteristic is why beer is almost always brewed from dehydrated hops.  The nature of the lupulin means that if you can’t brew with it right away, you need to preserve it for brewing later.  The process for preserving it involves first dehydrating it and then sealing it and storing it in a cool dark place like a freezer.  If you want to use it fresh, you must brew the beer on the same day it is picked.  That’s why you will never walk into the grocery store and see a produce bin selling hops or a beer advertising itself as ‘fresh hopped’.  It’s just not feasible on a corporate level.
The Willamette Valley is fortunate in two regards:  it is one of the premier hops growing regions in the U.S., and it has a plethora of micro-breweries. This means that it IS actually possible to purchase fresh-hopped beer in some local brew pubs during a small period of time in late summer/early fall.  With apologies to the rest of the US of A, the only way you are likely to experience this unique beverage is to grow the hops and brew it yourself.
A beer made with fresh hops is a celebration of the harvest, not merely a different style of beer.  It’s difficult to describe the difference between fresh hopped beer and a beer made from dried hops- it’s like describing the difference between sweet corn-on-the-cob roasted on your grill and a can of corn that’s been heated up in the microwave.  I suppose that I could say that fresh hopped beer has a bit more of a green planty flavor and aroma than traditionally hopped beer, but you’re going to have to be the judge of that!

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