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Beer Reviews

Harvest Ale

Founders Brewing Co.
Grand Rapids, MI
USA
http://www.foundersbrewing.com

Style: American Pale Ale
ABV: 7.0%

Nigel’s Rating:
one beerone beerone beerone beerone beer   (World class.)


Comments:
Hops.

The wonderful flower (or cone, depending on your preferred terminology) at the tip of the vine bearing its name is clearly one of Mother Nature’s greatest inventions. Where would the world be without hops? Beer would be a joke without this magical ingredient that helps preserve the beverage of the gods, helps stimulate the important work of yeast, and provides that wonderful bitter bite and sweet floral aroma that sends connoisseurs of good beer everywhere into a state of euphoria. Hops are to beer what grapes are to wine, with a number of varieties grown in different regions, climates, and soils. While the difference in taste and smell among different hop varieties may be hard to distinguish to the novice beer drinker, it’s quite perceptible to those of us who worship the very vine on which they are grown. True, while barley and other grains, as well as the yeast used in the brewing process are certainly crucial to making a fine beer, in Nigel’s opinion nothing compares to the ultra-important role played by hops.

If you’ve read any of my past reviews, you already know that I hold hops in the highest regard. Founders Harvest Ale provides Sir Nigel, hophead extraordinaire, with another unique hop adventure, one that I’ve only had once before. That would be the use of “wet” hops in an American pale ale, which I experienced for the first time about a month ago in Sierra Nevada’s similarly named Harvest Fresh Hop Ale.

There is a belief that using “wet” hops (freshly harvested hops utilized right after picking) is superior to the far more common practice of using “dry” (dehydrated) hops. I debated this in my Sierra Nevada review, and came to the conclusion that the difference lies mostly in the aroma and has very little bearing on the taste. After sampling Founders’ version of a fresh hop APA, I think this conclusion is justified. While using fresh, wet hops may sound like a superior brewing method, it’s not very practical and can be difficult to execute outside of hop-heavy regions like Washington’s Yakima Valley, Oregon’s Willamette Valley, and European hop hotbeds like Bavaria, the Czech Republic, and southern England. The belief that using fresh hops makes better beer is much like the idea that using fresh herbs or vegetables in cooking makes for better food. It may seem more authentic and thus psychologically is superior, but the difference in taste is minimal as long as the packaged version is properly prepared.

There is likely a discrepancy in fresh hop ales as well. While Sierra Nevada is in the midst of the hop-rich regions of northern California, Oregon, and Washington, Founders is located in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where regional hop cultivation is scant at best. Thus, while Sierra Nevada claims to brew their fresh hop ale the very day the hops are picked, it’s unlikely that Founders has the same advantage. Considering that Founders loves Northwest hops (Centennial seems to be their weapon of choice), it’s probable that these are preserved in some sort of “hop formaldehyde” for a short period of time. Granted, it’s not the same as dehydrating them, but it’s also not exactly the same as brewing them right off the vine.

So, according to Nigel logic, Founders’ use of wet hops in their Harvest Ale won’t make this beer any better than their already fantastic dry-hopped selections of Centennial IPA, Devil Dancer, or Pale Ale, right?

Wrong.

This may be Founders’ best use of hops to date. It’s not as well balanced as the maltier Centennial IPA, but if you’re a total Hophead like me, you may find Harvest Ale to be superior. It’s better than Devil Dancer for the simple fact that the hops aren’t on total overload, but many of you will likely disagree with my assessment that it tops Centennial IPA. There’s flat-out no doubt it’s far better than their original Pale Ale.

Harvest Ale pours with a nice, pillowy white head that slowly dissipates, leaving a decent trace throughout the drink. Bottle conditioned, it’s a hazy golden brown color with heavy sedimentation. The aroma is second to none when it comes to APAs. Almost exclusively Northwest hop aromas, dominated by the citrusy zest of orange peel and grapefruit, as well as a piney tinge. Light, sugary malt tops off an aroma that seems to prove my point that the biggest advantage in using wet hops is that they, well … smell SO DAMN GOOD!

It seems like lately I’ve reviewed a slew of beers that look and smell fantastic, but fall short in the taste department. Harvest Ale is definitely not one of those. This is a phenomenal APA, one of the best I’ve ever had, especially if you exclude Three Floyd’s Alpha King (I consider that to be an IPA despite its listing … although you could probably say the same for this beer as well). Heavy flavors of grapefruit and orange zest combine with the distinct, coniferous bite of Northwest hops, making this a hophead’s wet dream come true. (Dig the pun? You know, wet hops equals wet dreams? Oh, never mind.) The maltiness is a distant secondary player to the citrusy, hoppy zip, but the bit that does come through is of the light, sweet, caramel variety. Checking in at 7 percent ABV, there is virtually no hint of alcohol in either the aroma or flavor. As the beer warms up a bit the hoppy zip becomes tempered by some earthiness, so if you aren’t a huge fan of hop-monsters, I’d let it sit for about a half hour and enjoy. Medium-bodied, it goes down relatively smooth but is too heavy on the hops to be considered a session brew.

Harvest Ale proves that there are some definite aromatic advantages to using wet hops, but the overall quality of this beer has everything to do with Founders’ ability to brew phenomenal beer and little to do with the freshness of the hops. This brewery is, in my opinion, the king of the Midwest, and they’ve proven themselves yet again. If you love hops and see Harvest Ale on the shelves, definitely pick some up—a four-pack runs around $7 to $10.

Cheers!

Reviewed by Nigel Tanner on December 11, 2007.
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