Sam Flynn-Scott gets down with the funk of the fresh hop season.
To truly understand beer you have to think of it as a fresh product. Unless you are getting into very specific variants, it is not usually meant to be aged. It’s a weird funky stew that at its peak, when made by the wise masters, somehow manages to make bitter, yeasty, porridge-water into the most refreshing thing humans have ever come up with. But keeping it cold and safe, like an endangered penguin, is paramount to its long-term survival.
But seeing as we’ve sort of clocked the game of beer now, New Zealand brewers (and beer drinkers) seem ever more drawn to a far more perishable and hard-to-handle sub-genre that is still something of a mystery to most beer drinkers (including myself): fresh hops.
Hops are the little flowers (cones or strobilus if you wanna be all nerdy about it) that make beer bitter, floral and delicious. The only other ingredients in a classic beer are water, the grains (usually malted barley) and the yeast, which is there to eat that tasty barley and make it into booze. The flavour is all coming from that strobilus, the manky buds, the thing that looks like pot. And 99.999999 (lots of 9s)% of the time those buds are heat cured to preserve them, control the flavours a touch and provide a product that can be brewed year round. They also, in cured form, look like dog biscuits.
Fresh hops are different. They are unstable bastards that are only available in very short windows and must be used very quickly to avoid degradation. Drastic lengths are taken to get these manky buds from the hop farms of Nelson to the brewers of New Zealand as quickly as possible. One year Garage Project even hired a plane and hammed it up as Colombian Narcos to get their precious, nefarious cargo across Cook Strait as quickly and as Instagramably as possible.
Esteemed beer scribe Michael Donaldson describes fresh hops as having all the characteristics you’d find in a processed, cured hop “but also that leafy grassy padding that nature gave them. They can also be more resinous.” Also, these flavours can shift from year to year and even within a season. “Will it be the same as last year? We don’t quite know. The whole process is really quick, the hops are fragile little creatures. They have to be used correctly. It’s a completely different product, stripped back to its bare necessities.”
New World supermarkets are taking this very niche, small-production product and using their resources to get it to a much wider audience. For a short time, you’ll find a selection of six fresh hop beers vying for space with greenrugbybeer© and yeahrighttomatosaucebeer™ on supermarket shelves. It’s the brainchild of Terry Vaa, Foodstuffs North Island beer category manager, and born, so he claims, from his own desire as a consumer to have access to more fresh hop beer.
“We were on the hunt for something else new and unique, and I was finding myself that at this time of year, I was on the hunt for fresh hop beers,” Vaa explains. “The initiative wasn’t because of any great thinking – it came from a consumer perspective within myself. As opposed to our other beer categories, for craft drinkers, price wasn’t ranking as high as quality, range, taste, experience and finding something unique. That gives us the opportunity to partner on really interesting products like the Garage Project Whittaker’s chocolate stout, and now with six more exciting and celebrated breweries working with these fresh hops.”
Vaa stresses that it’s not just interesting beers but a well looked after product in its best form that people want. “This market has a really high expectation of quality. We’ve had to build the fresh hop concept slowly to make sure the logistics are in place.” These logistics mean creating a ‘cold chain’; keeping the beer cold from the brewery to your belly, treating it with the same care and constant refrigeration normally reserved for meat and dairy.
For the breweries, this is a game changer. “It will ensure the integrity and freshness of the product will remain. It’s in the name ‘fresh hop’. You don’t want to buy a fresh hop beer that’s all stale because its been kept warm,” reckons Parrotdog’s co-founder and brewer, Matt Warner.
Matt sees the fresh hops’ lively and slightly unpredictable character as an exciting challenge for the brewer. “For a specific variety, you might have a one-week window to get that raw product. It’s like a winemaker, you get this moment once a year. You don’t get to practise for it, there is a spontaneous nature to it.”
There is an element of theatre to it too, but also a celebration of harvest. It’s a once-a-year brew that provides wholly different challenges and results in a very different product. Get it wrong and the lively phenols can give you an unbalanced, grassy product. Get it right and it’s another great harmony in the choir of deliciousness. A harmony that our ear-mouths can but sup in the early months of winter, taking us on a holiday to the holy harvest in the golden fields of Nelson Sauvin and Riwaka hops.
“It’s such a wonderful aroma in the brewery when those whole cones arrive. The entire brewery stops what they’re doing and comes down to see what’s happening,” Matt says. “There is some kind of magic that can die away when the hops are processed. We are getting them in their natural form and it seems to express certain characters we can’t otherwise achieve.”
Parrotdog has released some deeply delicious hazy IPAs in recent times. Matt tells me that Susan and Colin, for whom the hazies are named, are in fact ghosts who haunt the brewery, which makes sense as they are murky, mysterious beers that haunt me to this day. For the New World fresh hop release, Parrotdog is continuing in the hazy zone but with a lower-ABV pale ale that Matt feels will be a better balance for the fresh hops and won’t require any additional late dry hopping to boost that hazy IPA tropicalia of the mouth that is so en vogue at the moment. “We’ve never done a hazy that’s sessionable. This one has a little bit less malt and less alcohol than the IPAs.”
I joined Matt at Parrotdog’s Lyall Bay HQ to sample the goods in their resplendent ’70s throwback Nice Bar. Their fresh hops offering is an incredibly balanced, refreshing IPA that makes you want a second one before you’ve finished the first. Neither grassy nor resinous, it has all the benefits of the fresh hops and none of the possible negatives. I nominate it for ultimate Cricket World Cup beer, if it lasts that long!
In their usual fashion, Garage Project is taking the concept of a fresh hop beer and making it something completely different. This year they took the fresh cones and snap-froze them within an hour of picking, then freeze-dried the little nuggies, locking in their fresh aromas. Co-founder Jos Ruffell has high hopes for the freeze-dried hop process but also sees the cold-chain service New World is providing as a breath of ‘fresh’ air for the craft world. “Ideally we’d like these logistics for all of our beers all of the time, so to have major supermarket chain driving the initiative is very exciting.”
When I spoke to Jos about it, we happened to be with JC and Esther Tetreault from Boston’s famed Trillium Brewing Company (here in New Zealand to sample the best NZ hops as part of the Hāpi festival). They sell almost 100% of their beer from their own sites purely because they can’t control the cold chain of distribution and want complete integrity for their premium product. To them, the idea of a supermarket providing cold-chain beer distribution was some kind of wild fantasy situation they would love to see in the US, but imagine they won’t.
Garage Project’s ‘Chill Hop’ IPA will cause some vigorous debate I’m sure. Is a freeze-dried hop still fresh? Is it in fact fresher? Terry Vaa just wants people to be talking about what they are drinking and engaging with the products he stocks. It’s a very unusual IPA; I drunk a couple with Jos and a gang of Wellington eaters over spicy bowls of dan dan noodles from Taste Of Home (is that the best food in Wellington? Possibly yes). You can almost sense the freezing process. It’s uncannily smooth, a crystal clarity that quenched our burning palates. A delicious window into what is potentially a future standard of the beer-making process.
For the homebrewers out there, Michael Donaldson tells me that fresh hops can be sourced in small quantities through brew shops. “Even homebrewers can get an allocation. It’s a great product to play with. You’re celebrating a once-a-year thing – buy today, drink today.”
Beaujolais Nouveau has that same moment, the day when everyone must drink the fragile wine at its moment of perfection. In a way it’s a communal activity, as you tuck into a beer that you will never try again (even if they make it next year, it will be different), you know that there are other obsessives around the country sharing in that unique moment. And because of the care being taken with the product, we know with confidence that we are all drinking the same thing: something fresh and delicious.
This article was created in paid partnership with New World. Learn more about our partnerships here.