From the ever-changing offerings at your local farmer’s market to the chalkboard features at your neighbourhood bistro, the role that fresh, local, seasonal ingredients play in elevating the food we eat and re-connecting us to our traditional relationship with agriculture really can’t be overstated. And while the dynamics between food, seasonality, and place have become familiar to many, it’s far less common for the beer we drink to be seen in the same context.
Beer, like wine and spirits, is made of a few key agricultural products, and where these products are grown, their unique genus, and the care and skill involved in bringing them to maturation all play pivotal role in the range and depth of flavours they impart. While local brewing traditions have led to certain variations, hops (humulus lupulus) and malted barley (Hordeum vulgare) are the two primary agricultural products found in beer.
The barley found in most of the beer produced in BC is grown on the Prairies, and to a lesser extent, in the Peace Region, and up until a few years ago, nearly all of the hops that made their way into your favourite local beers were grown in places like Washington State’s Yakima Valley or Germany’s Hallertau region. However, not that long ago (before market forces driven by global beer conglomerates made hop farming unprofitable), the humble Fraser Valley was known as the ‘Hop Basket’ of the British Empire. From its high-water mark in the mid-twentieth century (when hop farms dotted the valley from Sardis to Aggasiz and Abbotsford) to its near collapse by the late-1980s, BC’s hop industry experienced some pretty seismic changes over the course of the 20th century. Fortunately, driven by our insatiable demand for craft beer (which relies so heavily on the aromatics and flavours that hops bestow), over the last 5 years hop farming has seen a triumphant return to BC.
The resin-filled, flowery cones of the hop plant are what impart the bitterness of a bohemian pilsner, the tropical, citrusy aromatics of a west coast IPA, and act as the perfect counterbalance to the sweet, caramelly notes from the malt bill of an American pale ale. Harvested every autumn, hops are traditionally kiln-dried and pelletized for use throughout the year, and up until about 15 years ago, the use of fresh hops in beer was so uncommon that famed beer writer Michael Jackson (no, not that MJ) wrote in 1993 that he’d only come across two breweries in his extensive travels that used ‘uncured hops’ in their beer. You see, unlike dry, pelletized hops, ‘fresh’ or ‘wet’ hops can only be used shortly after being harvested (preferably within hours of picking) and copious amounts are often required to have any noticeable effect on the flavour of a beer (which is why having a local hop industry is so important to this style of beer – hence its genesis in the Yakima Valley).
Until Driftwood’s legendary Sartori Harvest IPA (named after the Sartori Hop Farm in Chilliwack where Driftwood sources the Centennial hops for this beer) was first produced 8 years ago, the use of fresh hops in BC’s beer industry was unheard of, but my-oh-my how that’s changed! Over the last two to three years as the supply of local, high-quality hops has exploded, so has this style, with countless local breweries offering their own fresh-hopped beers.
Right now, the hop harvest is in full-swing, and over the next week or so chances are your favourite brewery will be offering a fresh-hopped beer or two. I always like to use the analogy of cooking with fresh herbs to describe the experience of drinking a fresh-hopped beer. Imagine living your whole life accustomed to dried basil, and then one day discovering the depth of flavour conveyed by a few leaves picked fresh from your garden. Pretty epic stuff, really.
But like all good, seasonal pleasures, the window for enjoying fresh-hopped beer is short, with the first few examples hitting stores late last week, and the last few likely to hit stores and tasting rooms in the next week or so. Driftwood’s Sartori Harvest IPA landed in Vancouver on Friday, but don’t despair if you can’t find a bottle (it typically sells out within hours of arriving in private bottle shops). A recent trip to my local found at least 6 different fresh-hopped beers on offer, so chances are if you visit your local brewery or bottle shop over the next week or so, you won’t miss out.
‘Amalgamation’, a fresh-hopped double IPA brewed by Parallel 49, Boombox, Dageraad, Four Winds, Powell Brewery, Doan’, Bomber, Hearthstone and Parkside with over 300 pounds of fresh Amarillo Hops from the Yakima Valley is getting some rave reviews, and is currently on sale at Parallel 49’s on-site store.
So whether you enjoy some fresh-hopped goodness at your local tasting room or in the comforts of home, be sure to connect with some BC agricultural history this week and sample a local treat that’ll be gone before you know it. Believe me, there’s a good reason why beer lovers call the hop harvest ‘the most wonderful time of the year’!