Fresh hop season in Minnesota is short. The aromatic beer ingredient is touchy when used fresh, and a brewer must get it into the kettle as fast as possible. And while Minnesota grows more of the stuff every year, most hops need to be shipped in to meet the demand, which makes finding fresh hop beers a challenge.
That's where Town Hall Lanes comes into the picture.
This week, Town Hall Lanes will hold its second annual Fresh Hop Fest, featuring 23 different rare fresh-hopped brews from both local and national breweries. The options will be quite varied, from the grassy elements of Indeed's Mosiac Fresh Hop, to the green and acidic Lift Bridge Harvestor, to Town Hall's own Fresh Hop 100. Town Hall's 2014 variation is a light, clean, and balanced ale that is smaller than the 2013 version.
"This festival is a great way to discover how much hops can change the flavor of a beer," says Mike Hoops, head brewer at Town Hall. "We expect it to be the best chance to sample so many different varieties under one roof in the state."
There are two key differences in brewing with fresh hops versus brewing with the pelletized version that is commercially available year round. First, fresh hops give off a uniquely powerful aroma, typically more floral in nature -- though that depends on the variety of hops in use.
Second, the brewing process is much messier when using the cones in place of the condensed pellet form. It creates additional work for the brewers. Fresh hops are not only a challenge for brewers, but also for growers and producers, as shipping and harvesting present unique challenges.
While fresh hop beers have long been brewed on the West Coast, they are gaining in national popularity. On Hoops's visit to Yakima Valley, Oregon, where Town Hall's hops are grown, farmers noted that 15 to 20 years ago, only 20 percent of their growth was focused on aromatic and flavorful hops, while 80 percent were bittering varieties. Those numbers have reversed in recent years.
To get more insight into the process and difference between pellets and fresh, we sat down with Hoops to get his take. Tickets for Fresh Hop Fest can be purchased online ($7) and at the door ($10), with separate beer tickets sold once admitted. In addition, from October 20 to 25, Town Hall is celebrating its 17th anniversary with a week of special events, listed below.
Hot Dish: You're doing a fresh hop beer with apples this year, if it turns out. Have you done anything like this before? How is the process different when you're working with apples?
Mike Hoops: We love hard cider at Town Hall Brewery. After learning we had access to the new Equinox hop variety that is said to have some potential apple flavor/aroma, we thought it may be a unique marriage. We contacted our friends at Minnesota's own Milk and Honey Ciders for fresh pressed juice and they were on board.
The difficulty we now faced was dealing with two very volatile agricultural products, wet hops and fresh pressed apple juice. A true nightmare for scheduling, but in typical Town Hall Brewery fashion we made it happen. We used a large volume of fresh pressed cider apple juice resulting in cider-like acids and tannins in the finished product, so we will be back-sweetening just as cider makers do.
Besides the quantity of hops, how is the fresh hop brewing process different than working with pellets?
Time is critical when working with fresh hops. To ensure our wet-hopped beers have the best aroma and flavor, we need to start brewing almost immediately after the hops come off the delivery truck. The brewing days are a lot of work, but the outcome is a wonderfully aromatic beer that is unique to wet hop beers and unlike other seasonal options. We think our Fresh Hop 100 is unlike many others because we only use freshly harvested, whole cone wet hops throughout the whole brew. Most other brewers use pelletized hops in the boil kettle because the whole cone fresh hops are problematic in a brew kettle. We like the authenticity of Fresh Hop 100 because of our brewing method and feel many others are quite different from ours.
When you're working with pelletized hops, timing doesn't play as big of role in the brewing process.
If you could access fresh hops year-round would there still be an interest in the pellets? Do you prefer one over the other for different types of beer?
Pellets preserve the essential hop oils very well and can be far easier to store. Our brew kettle is also designed to work with pellet hops, so I am fine with pellets. Growers and processors are investing greatly in infrastructure to ensure quality pelletization these days.
Knowing the extra effort that goes into production of fresh/wet hop beers, both at the grower and brewer level, I think they [fresh hops] are a great thing to experience annually.
Town Hall's 17th Anniversary Week: October 20-25
- Monday, October 20 at 5 p.m.: Release of Anniversary Ale, a big red ale
- Tuesday, October 21 at 7 p.m.: Anniversary Beer Dinner, a four-course beer dinner curated by Brewmaster Mike Hoops and chef Jared Norris. Reservation only, tickets available at Town Hall Brewery for $55.
- Wednesday, October 22 at 5 p.m.: Release of Mango Mama, a mango-infused India pale ale
- Thursday, October 23 at 5 p.m.: Release of Russian Roulette, award-winning chocolate imperial stout
- Friday, October 24 at 5 p.m.: Flights of Town Hall Brewery's limited edition barrel-aged beers. The brewery's Buffalo Bock was just recognized with a bronze medal at the 2014 Great American Beer Festival.
- Saturday, October 25 at 3 p.m.: Three Hour Tour Release, a coconut milk stout