Monday, December 3, 2007

No Wonder There's A Freaking Hop Shortage

Sierra Nevada Brewing Company is one of the biggest and oldest craft breweries in the United States. It was started in 1980 in a small town 2 hours North of Sacramento in the heart of the Sacramento Valley between the Cascade Mountains and the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Not only is this Nortern California area rich in agriculture, but it is an area rich in the American craft brewing tradition; home to such illustrious breweries as Bear Republic, Mendocino, Russian River, Lagunitas, Lost Coast, and, of course, Sierra Nevada.

Together these Northern California breweries have begun and carried the torch for hoppy American beers. A mere 500 miles from the Yakima Valley (about the distance from Madison, WI to Pittsburgh, PA), hops are plentiful. Sierra Nevada has a reputation that is unsurpassed. The Bigfoot Barley Wine is considered one of the finest in the world of its style and has a hop profile that makes this beer near the top of the bitterness scale (90 IBU for those of you keeping count). The Pale Ale has won 7 gold medals and is Sierra Nevada's single most popular beer; it is singlehandedly responsible to introducing countless people to craft beer and tips the pale ale scale at 37 IBU.

Hops are usually used in a dried form; they dry easily and quickly and keep well sealed and chilled. Sometimes they are used as dried whole leaves, sometimes they are used as dried and compressed pellets. But because of the proximity of Northern California to the largest hop growing region in the world (the Yakima Valley) these breweries are in a somewhat unique position: they can use large quantities of hops in their fresh, undried form allowing for huge aromas and the extraction of even the most subtle leaf flavorings.

Havest Fresh Hop AleIt is with these fresh hops that Sierra Nevada has bottled their Havest Fresh Hop Ale. A bounty of hops, over 8,000 pounds (4 TONS) of hops, went into this years bottles. Some of these bottles made it all the way to Madison, WI where they were purchased at the Barriques on PD on the west Side. Unfortunately, the hops themselves are having a tough time getting here - perhaps because they are in these bottles.

The two hop types in this bottle are cascade and centennial. Cascade hops are typically associated with these Northern California breweries and provide a citrusy, orange-like aroma and flavor. While cascade hops are easily over-used, they can provide a distinct aroma and quenching flavor. Centennial hops are similar but with a more subtle citrus-iness and a more pronounced floral bouquet.

Appearance: huge 3-finger white foamy head, golden copper and crystal clear and stylish carbonation; a very pretty beer
Aroma: floral and not nearly as citrusy as might be expected; there is slight lemony pepperiness and a huge flowery nose
Taste: bitter; very, very bitter; seems to be lacking any malt at all actually - faint sweetness pokes out, but the peppery bitterness is overwhelming; after the first shock, some of the citrus juiciness pokes through and provides a pleasant diversion from the mouthpuckering tartness.
Body: It is a "soft" beer and the fresh hop resins provide a coating function that causes this beer to adhere to the inside of the mouth leaving a pleasant brightness after the big flavors are over
Drinkability: One is enough thank you very much; I like it for what it is, and the hops are pleasant enough; but I can't fathom drinking very much of it
Summary: Very unbalanced; not as much of the cascade oranginess as I expected - more of a lemony and floral acidity; the oiliness provided a nice counterbalance to what would otherwise be a harsh beer; the lack of any malt characteristic prevents this from being too highly recommended except to anyone other than dedicated hop heads.

ps. For those keeping score at home: Sierra Nevada is also a brewpub and would be unable to operate in the state of Wisconsin under the recently passed laws allowing the Great Dane to brew at Hilldale.

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