Thursday, November 20, 2014

Brewing With Local Hops / Brewer's Gold Pale Ale - Recipe & Tasting Notes

Brewery: Bear Flavored
Style: Pale Ale
Brewed: 10.21.14
Kegged On: 7.31.14
ABV: 6.2%

Appearance: pale orange/gold, good clarity, moderate head
Smell: mild fruit medley, melon, berry, floral, mild earth, mild spice
sweet mild fruits, melon, berry medley, floral/citrus note in finish, low bitterness
Mouthfeel: medium body, low-med carbonation, clean finish

I still don't think anyone fully understands why hops became the unquestioned poster-child of the revitalized beer movement. Logically, I suppose, it had to be something; something to focus on, to differentiate these new beers from the mass-market old. Water wouldn't work; too mundane. Yeast (and bacteria) are finally getting their day in the sun, but brewers have always had a habit of minimizing their importance, or misunderstanding it altogether. So it had to be either grain or hops.

I've noticed, through working at Beacon Homebrew and leading brewing classes and workshops this year: people just gravitate toward hops. Growing them, brewing with them, making tea with them, making pillows out of them, filling bouncy castles with them, and so on. Grain, for whatever reason, doesn't inspire much fascination. (And in fact, a lot of people will look at a bucket of barley malt and ask: "Are those hops?") New York has a rich history of hop growing, and the hop bines are finally returning to the region. I've talked to dozens of people growing hops that don't even know how to brew beer; or who have come to a brewing class to learn how to brew, primarily because they just want to grow hops and need something to do with them. Hops catch and hold people's attention. And I guess, to be fair, hops are considerably more exciting and odd (and aromatic) up close than a barley kernel is.

So in the future, a lot of us are going to have local hops available to brew with. Many of you are probably growing them yourselves. I've made a few different beers with different local hops since this harvest, and have been trying to get a feel for this growing but immature category.

It's often difficult to explain why 'local', when it comes to hops, doesn't work quite the same way as 'local' when it comes to the quality of produce. Freshness is important with hops, obviously, but a few weeks discrepancy isn't going to be nearly so important as how they're packaged. The big growers in the Pacific Northwest aren't some agri-corp pressing hop pellets made from pure GMO gluten and MSG out of molds in a factory — they are farmers with a ton of experience who really know what they're doing, because they've been doing it for a while. Most home-growers and small farms with a couple plants are still gaining that expertise. It's important to make a distinction between hops grown for fun, to be maybe thrown in a wet-hop beer in the fall, and hops expected to be put to use on a regular basis throughout the brewing year. There's more to well-handled hops than simply throwing them in a vacuum sealer. Me and a few friends got Cascade hops from a local grower that didn't seem to have been properly dried; once in the wort and beer, they had a near-magical ability to clog everything they touched. I've never seen hops have such a clingy, magnetic, port-stuffing ability — I was half afraid they would stick to me and smother me in my sleep.

But the main concern when brewing with local hops, I think, is that hops take a number of years to mature, and so much of what's out there is still quite young, and therefore mild. This is simply the nature of a fledgling industry, and means that the next few years, and the next decade especially, will be very exciting. Young hop farms are finding what grows best, and experimenting with new breeds like Neomexicanus and Tahoma. We'll start to see more variation between the same hops grown and adapted to different regions. Even between Eastern and Western NY, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Vermont, something as classic as Cascade will no doubt taste subtly different from farm to farm.

But for now, local hops are still finding their footing, as would be expected. Those Cascade hops (the cloggers), they basically disappeared into everything brewed with them. I brewed a wet hop ale with a large basket full of fresh-off-the-vine hop cones — of another variety, from another farm — that tasted like a kolsch. Good flavors, nothing weird, but just super mild. Again, these are all hop plants that have a lot of maturation to do. Give them a couple years, and hopefully they'll bear their own uniquely local flavors.

The best beer I've brewed with local hops so far is one that, oddly enough, uses an old and under-appreciated variety. You rarely hear any talk of Brewer's Gold as a flavor/aroma hop, but doing a single hop with this variety has been on my docket for a couple years now. It wasn't as high priority as brewing with exciting new stuff like Azacca, but I suspected BG had potential. As juicy and dank hop flavors didn't become acceptable until a couple decades ago, I've always assumed some of those past-century hops utilized heavily in early American brewing had more going on than we modern Citra-lovers realize. How could so many people describe Ballantine India Pale Ale as tasting like a modern IPA, when it couldn't have used modern hops? Cascade didn't just pop up out of thin air; it was part of an evolution in American hop terroir.

Well, Brewer's Gold is a worthy hop, if this batch is any indication. These particular hops (leaf, from the 2014 harvest) are from Camps Road Farm, the first modern commercial hop farm in Connecticut. In a super light and clean pale ale, yes, they are mild, but not in the sense of some of others I've used — not in the sense that they don't give off much flavor. It's just that the character is not exaggerated or aggressively bold in any particular direction; it seems like a summary of hop flavors, an encapsulation of a whole bunch of different things, none of which are turned up to 11. Which, it turns out, makes me for a very nice and very drinkable beer; I'm enjoying this far more than many IPAs on the market with a more intensely pungent character. It's just that I'm having an insanely difficult time pinning specific flavor descriptions upon it. Adjectives just slide off every note that I grasp at. I can barely get more specific than "fruit(?)". Maybe, uh.... floral? ... Hoppy? It might be one of the hardest-to-describe beers that I've made. But quite possibly, that intrigue is a big part of what's keeping me interested, too. It's complexities are on the subtle side, but there are certainly complexities.

In the right context, in the right base beer, there's a lot still to be said for the overlooked flavors of the past, and for the new farms in old regions newly growing old hops. One new hop farm a town up from me found a thriving, vigorous bine of (at least) 100 year-old hops growing on its property. Obviously, I demanded a sample to brew with. What will hops that have been left to nature for at least a century taste like? I have no idea, but I can't wait to find out.

5.25 Gal., All Grain
Single infusion mash at 148 F
Fermented at 68 F in temp control fridge
OG: 1.058
FG: 1.010
ABV: 6.2%

85.7% [#9] Pilsner malt
9.5% [#1] wheat malt
4.8% [8 oz] Caramalt

Hop Schedule-
1 oz. Brewer's Gold @FWH
3 oz. Brewer's Gold @whirlpool
4 oz. Brewer's Gold dry hop for five days

Safale US-05 American Ale


  1. One of my favorite hoppy saisons is all about this hop: Thiriez Extra.

  2. did you mean kegged on 11.31.14?

  3. Thank you for a very informative post. Enjoyed the post. I really like your writing style and how you express your ideas.


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