Why we love Fresh Hops

Michael Donaldson

The craft beer world is increasingly embracing one-off, limited-run and seasonal beers – and that’s never more evident that at this time of year when “fresh hop” beers hit the shelves for a short window.

Most people assume beer is an all-year-round thing: that what you see on the shelves in May will be the same thing you’ll see in December. But, modern craft brewers are turning the old model upside down with new beers hitting the shelves every month, or even every week.

There’s one time of year – right now – when these one-off beers taken on an extra special quality.

Just as wine has a “vintage” – with grapes harvested in March – so hops have a once-a-year moment when they are harvested in sunny Nelson. Most hops picked are processed – dehydrated, pelletised and vacuum-packed – so they stay fresh for the following 12 months. It’s the only way to guarantee you’ll get your favourite hoppy beer at Christmas.

A small portion of the harvest is set aside to be used “fresh” in their natural state, where hops resemble little green pillows of goodness; full of essential oils giving hoppy beers their celebrated aromas of tropical fruit, citrus, pine, grass and even diesel and cat pee.

Once a year a few privileged brewers get a chance to make a beer with hops almost straight from the bine (yes, they grow on bines, not vines). It’s a real labour of love to create these brews because fresh hops are tricky to work with.

But the results … hmmmm!

What sets fresh hop beers apart from other year-round beers is the way the whole hop bud is used in the brewing process. The unprocessed hops give up more of their resinous, essential oils as well as other herbaceous, organic qualities that are often stripped away by processing. If you’ve ever had mint tea made with fresh mint from the garden versus dried mint tea, you’ll know what we mean. There’s an X- factor with fresh hops.

The fresh hop beers being showcased at New World – from Behemoth, Garage Project, Panhead, Liberty, Parrotdog and Sawmill – are all unique but all of them feature what has become a signature New Zealand hops: Nelson Sauvin.

In its fresh state Nelson Sauvin delivers a big whoomph of juicy tropical fruit and a broad grape juice character resembling sauvignon blanc. It’s a potent but volatile flavour and the hops start to lose some of these qualities almost the moment they are picked. They are so delicate they need to be used literally within hours of harvest.

For the Wellington breweries involved that means getting their fresh hops on a charter plane from Nelson within an hour or two of being harvested. A short hop over the Cook Strait means they can be in the breweries in good time.

For the Auckland breweries the exercise is a logistical challenge and listening to Mike Sutherland of Sawmill Brewery explaining the process, conjures up images of TV medical dramas where a patient is awaiting a vital organ transplant.

In this case rather than surgeons scrubbed and waiting in ER for the life-saving heart or liver to arrive, it was Sutherland’s brew team on standby – they’d started making their beer and were just awaiting the hops to arrive.

The hops, picked that morning in Nelson, were air-freighted to Auckland – kept cool all the way – and when they landed in the Big Smoke they were shipped to Behemoth brewer Andrew Childs.

Sawmill arranged a rendezvous with Behemoth – they had their own refrigerated truck on standby – and the hops continued their journey up the road to Matakana, about an hour north of Auckland.

“You need to get the hops from Nelson to Matakana in shortest possible time,” Sutherland says. “We had a truck ready to go to deliver them to the brewery – and there we had the wort [unfermented beer] already in the kettle and the brew team ready to throw in the hops. You want to get them in the beer as fast as you can.”

Sawmill are using their fresh hops to make a White IPA – a Belgian-style IPA where fruity-spicy yeast flavours will complement what Sutherland calls the “huge fruity” Nelson Sauvin hop.

Asked to describe why there’s so much fuss about fresh hops, Sutherland replies, “The flavour is just bigger. They’re more resinous, oily, juicy, fruity and bolshie – that all comes through in the beer. It’s in your face!”

Sutherland says the nature of fresh hops also brings an element of mystery to the brewing. With pellet hops, breweries know that if they put in a certain amount for a set period, they’ll get a controllable bitterness. With fresh hops – because of their weight and bulk and their unrefined and pure nature – its means there are some ambient qualities which can’t be accurately calculated. “We put in an extraordinary volume and there’s an element of suck it and see.”

Speaking of sucking it up, fresh hops absorb a lot of wort meaning a lot of potential beer is lost, making it a more expensive exercise than a normal beer. And getting the used hops out of a brewing kettle is exhausting work.

“It’s a massive team effort, there are four of us with buckets scooping them out,” Sutherland says, adding that the hops held so much moisture they started to bend the mechanical rakes used to get spent hops out of the kettle.

Fresh hop beers, once they’re bottled, remain quite precious. Using fresh hops reduces the shelf life of the beer so New World is making sure these five featured beers reach you, the drinker, in the best possible state.

To do that New World is ensuring all the fresh hop beers are kept cold at every step of the shipping process – this is known as cold-chain in the lingo – meaning the beers stay chilled from the time they leave the brewery to the time they land on the shelves.

It’s another example of the love and care going into the handling of these beers from the moment the hops are picked. And it’s an added cost New World are happy to invest in to make sure you get the best possible experience. So, when you buy one, please put it in the fridge as soon as you get home, so it stays as fresh as possible for you to enjoy. 

You can see that making a fresh hop beer is a massive task – complex logistics, hard physical labour, and a slightly uneconomic product – but the flavour makes it more than worthwhile and the brewers love working with a natural product.

All those reasons are why fresh hop beers are only available for a limited time – so savour them. They are a wonderful treat to toast the annual harvest of our favourite little beer ‘flavourers’.

Take a look at this year's Fresh Hop Festival beers