Raw Hop Power

McMenamin’s brewpubs often get short shrift around here. They make very middle of the road beers, but Thundercone, their fresh hop ale, is one of my favorites every year. My pint was a little slow in arriving but the wait was worth it. They had to switch out kegs, and when it comes to hops, A fresh keg is always welcome.

Thundercone is raw and pungent. The hoppy bite on your tongue is incredible, it tingles all the way down your throat. Thundercone is bursting with juicy grapefruit black currant flavor — some people call it cat pee. It was Brewer’s Gold hops like these that first put European brewers off American grown varieties for centuries. They were really missing out.

Not So Fresh Hops

Almost all the local breweries make a beer or two using fresh, unkilned hops, but very few bottle these beers. Fresh hopped IPAs are even less shelf stable than their conventional brethren. To get the best fresh hop flavor you either have to go directly to the source, or find a respectable beer bar. 

Saraveza had two different fresh hop beers pouring on Friday. The first featured fresh Citra and the second, fresh Amarillo. Both great beers on paper, but how do they stack up in real life?

Well, Breakside’s fresh Citra IPA was exactly what I expected: bright citrus nose, lots of oranges and lemons, bitter grapefruit rind. Citra has never clicked for me. I like the hop when it’s used in a blend, but as a single hop, I find it a little weak. And I didn’t get any really pungent, fresh hop flavors in the beer either. But that may be due the weird way Breakside utilized the fresh hops — let’s just say liquid nitrogen was involved.

Amnesia Brewing’s Mother Plucker really missed the mark for me. I am a big fan of the juicy citrus and dank, earthy flavor of Amarillo hops but this beer fell completely flat. There was not a hop to be found, just bitter whole grains, like the bottom of a cheerios box. How does a beer fade that quickly?

Fresh hops are a mysterious thing, both beers seemed incredibly stale even though they were probably no more than a week out of the brewery. If you want to experience fresh hops you have to jump on them quick.

Czech Your Yeasts

In 1998, Widmer Brothers Brewing released their first real lager. I know what you’re thinking, but what about their marzen, what about the dopplebock, etc. Those beers were lagered, yes, but until they released their Czech-Style Pilsner, Widmer used the same yeast strain for almost every beer they brewed. 

That house Alt yeast found it’s way into dozens of different beer styles because it was easy. Having a single strain of yeast makes life easier when you can’t afford a lab and the marketplace didn’t offer a million different yeasts in smack packs. (And besides, rumour has it the original strain comes straight from Zum Uerige in Dusseldorf, the home of real Altbier.)

Using the right yeast for the right beer can do wonders. This Pilsner is right on the money. It immediately brought me back a few weeks to my first sip of Pilsner Urquell. This Pils is smooth and  biscuity with a surprisingly perfumy nose. Those Czech hops really smell like a garden.

After drinking a few more Pilsners and memorizing Jeff Alworth’s primer on Czech lager, I think I’ll be ready to visit Prague.

Beer Camp Looks Boring

Chico King is a collaboration between Sierra Nevada and 3 Floyds Brewing. It’s got a bright citrus nose, a sweet body — far sweeter than you’d expect in a pale ale, and a delicious ripe melon flavor. Very delicious if a little heavy on the candied fruit.

And that’s it. I drank them all. The whole Beer Camp Across America box — twelve different beers, twelve different collaborators, ten bottles and a couple of cans. They were all good beers. Not one made me gag or question the sanity of the brewer. But none of them stood out. None of them grabbed me. They were all missing something.

Just look at the bottles all lined up. Each bottle looks exactly the same. The only thing that changed was the name of the beer, the color of the label, and the bit of copy on the back label (but even the copy had the same flavor every time). The whole box was devoid of personality.

Yes, I said the beers were tasty and characterful, but there is more to enjoying beer than just the liquid. The vessel the beer comes in tells a story. The shape of glass you serve it in, but also the shape of the bottle you poured it from. The way the brewery describes itself on the label but also the way the label describes the brewery. 

When you take twelve different beers influenced by at least twelve different brewers and slap the same label on each one, you sap the beers of the personalities that shaped them. The way a brewer chooses to present a beer plays a role in how we perceive it, and when you strip the presentation away, the beer seem less personal and more industrial. 

If you take away the dog on a bottle from Hair of the Dog is it still Hair of the Dog? If you slap a label on an austere bottle from Westvleteren, will that change the way you taste it? Think about it.

Fresh and Golden

Last year, Old Town Brewing won a gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival for their fresh hop pale ale. I didn’t even know that was a category, but I stopped in to give it a try.

Cents and Centsibility features unkilned Centennial hops on a pale ale base. Most brewers are putting their fresh hops in IPAs but the lighter body is a plus in my book. Cents and Centsibility smells fresh and lightly perfumed. The flavor starts with sweet oranges and transitions into a fresh piney middle and very short bitter finish. The bitterness is rounder and softer than in a pale ale using dried hops.

Cents and Centsibility is very tasty. I drank two pints and might have gone back for a third. Cents is light, but not boring, which sounds like faint praise, but it’s a harder barrier to pass than you might think.