Wednesday, June 26, 2013

BREWniversity: Drink it right now!!!

Right now it seems like fresh beers are all the rage. Pliny the Elder does everything but call you a sonofabitch if you don't drink it right away. Stone, the bad boys of hops, even released a beer with an expiration date in the tittle. The first thing my buddy asked me when I got a six pack of Modus Hoperandi by Ska brewing was, "What is the brewed on date at the bottom of the can?"

What do all of these beers have in common? They are all IPA or DIPA style beers. Brewers are doing this because fresh American hops have the most kick right after the beer is brewed.

Originally hops were used for their preservative effect. People found that between a high amount of hops and a solid abv they could get beer from Europe to the New World back in the day, hence an India Pale Ale which is just a jacked up version of the original Pale Ales served in the UK. Before hops, people used a lot of different herbal ingredients to "spice" their beer, but none of them had the same preservative affect. We've come a long way since needing to have hops for transport. We've also gained a ton more varieties, strains and hop flavors. They have become part of the art of craft brewing not the function of the beer, that is unless you decide that you want to ship a cask of beer across the Atlantic Ocean by boat. Good luck...

Hops are the flowering cone off of the humulus lupulus plant, a cousin of hemp and marijuana. The cone's hold oils that when released give the bitter feeling, aroma and flavor depending on what point of the brewing process you add them into. This hop flavor is what so many craft drinkers crave. It has almost become a competition between breweries to see who can get the most hopped up beer on the market and people like O-Dawg eats that shit up. Because of people like O, we call them hopheads, the hop has become the international symbol for craft beer. Because it has become such an important ingredient, I had to figure out why everyone was preaching fresh beer when it comes to hops.

In an interview from 2010 “Tom Nielsen, Sierra Nevada’s senior research analyst focused on hop degradation, says that their research has shown that after about two and a half to three months, hop aroma in a packaged beer, derived mainly from beta acids in the hop flower, has already started to diminish significantly. It’s a sentiment backed by Patrick Langlois at Great Divide in Denver, brewers of notable hoppy beers including their Fresh Hop Pale Ale, Titan IPA, and Hercules Double IPA. “Hops tend to dissipate in three to four months, which is why that is the recommended shelf life for most of our beers.” You may not think aroma is that important, but IBUs are the scale to which hop bitterness is measured in beer. Allegedly the tongue can only taste up to 100 IBUs, any bitterness above and beyond that comes from the aroma. The aroma is also where we get most of the fresh herbal or floral appeal that comes from a great IPA.

Tom goes on about how the hoppy aroma can be hurt in transportation and distribution. As the bottle shakes in shipment the hop aroma releases but since there is a small amount of oxygen in beer bottle the aroma goes into it. Bottle caps are by no means perfect, and they do allow some seepage of aroma and O2. As the beer is handled over and over by distribution, the store and then the consumer more of that hop aroma is leached away. In fact, aroma is so important Sierra Nevada and Dogfish Head recently created a glass (to the right) to accentuate the hops of an IPA. The bubbles or ridges in the bottom of the glass were designed to agitate the beer and release more of the aroma right into your nose as you drink.

I am sure you've seen the Stone Enjoy By (followed by a date here) beers on shelves and in the blogosphere. Sadly we have only gotten one of them in Indiana so far. (side note, if you want to see more awesome Enjoy By beer here tweet #enjoyby and #Indianapolis out as much as you can!) They have gone so far as to create a beer that has the expiration date listed right on the label. "While freshness is a key component of many beers - especially big, citrusy, floral IPAs - we've taken it further, a lot further, in this IPA. You see, we specifically brewed it NOT to last" Because of this, Stone decided to only release their Enjoy By series to specific markets. This allowed them to brew smaller batches and get them out to those markets quickly. Stone could have have a batch for Chicago out to the market in just a couple of days after bottling. Managing this distribution process helps combat some of the issues with transportation above. Stone has even provided the below graphic on some of their beers to make sure you know how to get the freshest beer possible.
Hops are a delicate ingredient to beer. They are damaged by exposure to sunlight (skunking affect in beer actually comes from light exposure to the hops in a brew, this is why it is also called sun struck). Brewers take great care to make sure the ingredient is added correctly, at the right time and with the perfect blend. They use the best and often freshest product they can find, so we as the consumer need to take just as good care of the beer we buy. I was talking with Cameron, the head brewer at the Union Brewing Company in Carmel, and he told me that when they did King of Hop he tried to get the fresh hops from his at home hop farm to his boil tanks in less than fifteen minutes. If he is willing to brave Carmel cops to keep his ingredients as fresh as possible the least we can do is drink it right away!

Sadly there is no hard and fast rule. Some hops will hold up better than other strains, and some beers have enough ABV and malt that the hops aren't front and center, so you can wait a bit to drink those. But the Big Guy's rule on hops is, "Buy two, drink one as soon as you can get it cold, if its beautiful fresh and hoppy, insert beer two into the fridge and drink as soon as your friends get there." 

Next time you hit the liquor store to try and find a nice hopped up brew, check the brewed on date. Maybe pass something up if it isn't quite as recent as you want, or grab one that was brewed in the last couple of months and one that has been sitting around for a while to try them side by side. If you are having trouble figuring out what beers are best to age, check out my post on cellaring your brews.

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