The annual hop harvest is underway across the country, a time of celebration for many in the local beer world. For anyone who works in the country’s hop industry, it's marked by the long days needed to get those hops picked, processed and packaged while they're at their best; for brewers and, soon enough, beer drinkers it's a once-a-year chance to create and enjoys beers with hops transported straight from bine to brewhouse.
There's a romance to the hop harvest too, as well as pretty much the closest brewers get to talking about vintage in the manner of the wine world. And it's something celebrated in more ways than simply brewing, selling and swigging beers made with fresh hops.
For those with a technical bent, Hop Product Australia’s (HPA) Virtual Harvest is running for the entire month and includes the industry's move to brew more sustainably, hop sensory analysis, the art and science of beer recipe design and a farm tour, while The High Country Hop's Technical Symposium on April 3 offers the chance for craft beer industry members to learn from each other.
That symposium takes place the day after the beer-meets-music festival curated by Bridge Road Brewers which, like the Fresh Hop Beer Festival in New Norfolk, gives attendees an opportunity to enjoy beers brewed with fresh hops in the two regions best associated with growing them.
While there's a broad selection of fresh hop beers available these days, that hasn't always been the case. Cascade's First Harvest was an annual release showcasing experimental varieties that started in the early 2000s and returned last year after a five-year hiatus.
But few brewers in Australia have been working with fresh hops for as long as Ben Kraus, who brewed the first Bridge Road Brewers Harvest Ale in 2009, before adding a sibling release in 2012 in the shape of Dark Harvest, brewed in collaboration with Mikkeller.
Both beers have well over a decade of evolution behind them now, having changed over time in terms of hop selection, brewing processed and beer style. In 2022, while they're again a celebration of the hop harvest and use fresh hops from Rostrevor Hop Garden down the road from Beechworth, picked just hours earlier, this year's releases involve more brewers. Hazy Harvest has been brewed in collaboration with an Australian brewery closely associated with hazy, hoppy beers, Mountain Culture, while Dark Harvest is a Trans-Tasman recipe designed with Garage Project.
Given the length of time Ben has been making beers of this nature, his long association with HPA and the hop growers at Rostrevor (Ben is picture above with Owen Johnston from HPA and Gail Monshing from the hop farm), and the fact the brewery has again tweaked their approach this year, we were eager to catch up with Ben about the beers: what exactly they are, why they love brewing them, and what we can expect from this year's High Country Hop.
What is a fresh hop beer?
Fresh hop beers showcase hops from the latest harvest. The whole idea of making these beers at harvest time is to celebrate the hop harvest. What we’re trying to do is capture as much of those aromatic and volatile flavour characteristics as possible, and the way we think we can best achieve that is by using the hops before they’ve had any processing, apart from being picked obviously.
It means we get to use hops in a state before they’ve been processed or had the adverse effect of ageing at all. There’s oxidation that happens throughout the process as well as the loss of some of the more volatile aromatics and flavours that come from the hops.
What is the difference between a fresh hop beer and a wet hop beer?
I see the difference as being wet hop beers exclusively use those unprocessed green whole hops as explained above, and fresh hop beers might use some hops that are pelletised, although those hops are still fresh.
We’re using the wet hop method in creating both the beers we’re going to release this year but one of the differences is they’re also fresh hop beers, in that we’re using freshly processed pellets as well to supplement the flavour. Our harvest beers are normally exclusively wet-hopped, but this is a bit of a reaction to where the market is at. The flavour you get with most wet hop beers is very subtle and nuanced; that’s part of what happens when we use these wet hops – we get access to these more delicate flavour and aroma profiles.
The reaction we sometimes get from the market is that they’re not punchy enough, people are used to triple IPAs or double dry hops with obvious aromatics. So, a reaction to that is fresh hop beers where we supplement that wet hop character with the punchiness of a dry hop using pellets. But we're looking to use hops that are fresh, or have just been pelletised from this year’s harvest that were processed days before we got our hands on them.
Why did you start brewing these beers?
The main driver was looking to capitalise on our location in Australia. We’re about a 30-minute drive to the processing facility and probably a 20-minute drive from the back door of our brewery to where the hop gardens start.
It’s really looking to highlight our regionality and celebrate the time of year, putting our focus on the fact that we use locally grown Australian hops , they’re grown just down the road, and it’s an industry we should get behind, be proud of and pay homage to.
What makes brewing with fresh hop beers so special?
It’s exciting. We do two weeks of full-time brewing these beers and we make lots of it. We’ve stuck at it and we do want to try and be kind of seen as the authority of this in Australia and make sure we continue to develop these beers as we grow.
The other thing that’s been really interesting is being able to access Hop Product Australia’s (HPA) experimental hop verities for years and years. We were the first brewery to ever commercially use Vic Secret – that was our first one in 2009 – and we used Eclipse in Dark Harvest for many years before it was released. It’s been really exciting to be part of that development and to discover things together, the hop growers and breeders do the hard work but to be part of using them and putting them in a beer, which is why they are doing it, is really cool.
Are there any lessons you've learnt over the years?
Definitely don’t dry hop or over hop with wet hops.
With the initial brews we did, we tried to dry hop with wet hops and it’s like putting cabbage in your beer, I wouldn’t recommend it. The fact that they’re green and wet means there's other flavours that come along with that, green leafy matter, which is why I don’t think steeping them in cooler fermenting beer works very well. They’re only in the wort here for an hour by the time it’s pumped out.
Ensuring the wort that goes into the wet hops isn’t too hot is important too, because we use such a high rate we risk having a beer that’s too bitter and astringent.
How would you describe your relationship with the local hop growers?
Bridge Roads' relationship isn’t just with HPA as a company but the people who run the farm: the Monshing family, Allan and Gail and their son Dean. Dean brewed with me in the UK when he was working with Simply Hops there and he was helping me handpick hops in the field in that first year with Vic Secret. We’ve also brewed with HPA hops at the likes of Nøgne Ø, Birra del Borgo, De Struise and Stone.
Because we’ve had early access to new varieties, we would write all the notes that we thought about the hops and send them off to Simon Whittockm who leads the breeding program, and I think they would listen to what we said and include those flavour descriptors in their spreadsheets. Maybe not as gospel but as other ways of describing things.
Aussie hops are amazing but we do need a different array of aromas and flavours that we can’t currently get from Australian hops. I’d rather not be sending hops on a plane or in the water to get here, it would be better if they could be grown just down the road. So I’m all for helping HPA find other varieties.
We used to do our harvest beers only with experimental varieties but the experimental garden isn’t big enough for us to get enough hops to make these beers because we make so much now. But we’re keen to do a more experimental series next year to try and get more access to the research garden. Previously we’ve made single kegs with new varieties just for High Country Hop, which we’re keen to reintroduce with a feedback component from consumers that’s documented at the festival.
What are your personal highlights from the years of brewing fresh hop beers?
Working with other breweries and learning from them is really what stands out. We definitely learnt a lot from doing the malt recipe with Mikkeller for Dark Harvest and think that really came through, and we got first use of 016 before it was Eclipse, which was orange and mandarin and a really standout hop. Now that it's commercially available, we need to work out how to bring it into our core range.
Then, over the past few years, being able to interact with Duncan Gibson, Sam Hambour and the team from Hop Nation, we had Patrick Sullivan the winemaker here too, who is just an amazing guy, as is Topher from Wildflower. Any time with him is insightful.
We had Range last year and Sailors Grave who are both always doing interest things. This year being able to have DJ McCready from Mountain Culture come along – he’s such an interesting and knowledgeable guy who has brought so much to our recipe for Hazy Harvest this year. And it would be awesome if Jos and Pete from Garage Project can make it.
What about fresh hop beers from others – which have stood out from the crowd, whether local or from other countries?
I went to Beervana in New Zealand a long time ago – maybe 2010 with beer distributor John Cope Williams. The Kiwis had beers that were way hoppier and way more advanced in the flavour spectrum compared to Australia in the time: lots of double IPAs and lots of blow-your-toes-off big beers
But out of the whole beer festival, the best beer hands down was a wet hop beer from Sprig & Fern, who are from Nelson so had access to those fresh New Zealand varieties. It was really up my alley in that it was probably only 5 percent ABV, with a light malt base and reminiscent of one of my favourite beers styles, which is New Zealand pilsner. To me, it was the best beer there because it wasn’t over the top or smashing you in the face.
I asked them how they made it and they explained using the mash tun as a massive hop back, and the next time we did wet hop beers, that’s how we did and that’s how we’ve done it ever since.
What can you tell us about this year's fresh hop beers?
This year’s Harvest beers are the next step in the evolution. The Hazy Harvest with Mountain Culture will be super hoppy, have all those delicate notes from the wet hops but with fresh pellets to back that up and give some punch. We’re using Bluestone's NEIPA yeast; we haven’t used any of their yeast before but DJ recommended them so hopefully, that’s the start of a long relationship.
The Dark Harvest with Garage Project sees us go darker than ever before on the malt, but it has a lighter malt flavour so plays a bit of a mind trick in times of how it looks compared to how it tastes.
Tickets are still available to The High Country Hop - you can grab yours here.