Picking grapes is big news in wine circles, so much so that they even have a flash sounding name for it. It’s called ‘vintage time’ because it’s not just the time the grapes are picked, it is also the time that year’s wine – its vintage – is made.
Beer on the other is made throughout the year, so harvest time for the barley crop or the hops – ingredients that can be stored throughout the year – has traditionally been much less of a focus. In fact, beer’s ingredients themselves have for a long time been largely ignored, apart from the mandatory marketing spiels of ‘only using the finest malt and hops’. This has been to beer’s detriment. Where wine wraps itself in the romance of the harvest and the vintage, beer’s connection with its ingredients has been lost to most consumers.
More recently with the growth of the craft sector and the growing emphasis on hop character in beer, hops and hop varieties have become much more of a focus. This has led to an increased awareness of the hop harvests that occur annually in Tasmania and Victoria.
As brewers look to create interesting beers and attention-grabbing variations to styles, freshly hopped harvest ales are increasingly turning up at this time of the year. As CraftyPint.com recently catalogued, it’s almost becoming de rigueur for breweries with access to green hops to make a harvest ale. This is an exciting trend, and brings the focus back to the ingredients in beer and reminds the public that while beer is produced year-round, it is – or at least can be – an agricultural product at its heart.
While small breweries generate much of the excitement amongst the craft beer subculture, it was Tasmanian-based Cascade Brewery that re-introduced the harvest ale to Australia when it brewed its first First Harvest brew in 2002. Two weeks ago, I was lucky enough to join a group of journalists invited to participate in the brewing of the 2011 ‘vintage’, the brewery’s 10th.
Pioneering at its inception, the Cascade First Harvest may these days be shaded in the envelope-pushing stakes by some of the newer micro versions. Still, it remains an important beer within the Australian brewing industry if for no other reason than, with 4800 cases available, it is the largest harvest brew each year. With a national distribution it has the capacity to take the concept of truly vintage beer to a wide audience and, as it did in its first year, returns the focus to ingredients and seasons and the flavours they contribute.
This was amply demonstrated through the reactions of the non-beer, and even non food-specialised, writers who took part in this year’s harvest. They quickly became engrossed in a subject that they had never considered – hops – and professed to having their views about beer changed substantially as a result. Perhaps the best reaction – the one that Australia’s growing band of beer educators thrive on – was when one said, “it’s ruined me for my regular beer”.
For those who care about definitions of craft beer, First Harvest is a beer that confounds pigeon-holing definitions. It uses first harvest barley, malted at the brewery, as well as freshly hand-picked hops. While the first few vintages used a standard hop blend, more recently the hops used each year are experimental cultivars being used for the first time. While this process has thrown up some definite winners – in 2006 it was the first commercial brew to use the Galaxy hop, which is now the pin up girl for Australian hop development – it has also had to deal with varieties that have proved less than spectacular. In using the experimental varieties the brewing team admit they are working without a net and more than one vintage has given the team grey hairs as they anxiously watched the beer develop in the tanks. It doing so they are creating a beer that takes on a different personality each year – sometimes better than others, but always an expression of the variability of the ingredients and the seasons.
Interestingly for a beer that is just 5.5% abv, wasn’t specifically designed for aging and is not bottle conditioned, First Harvest holds up surprisingly well to cellaring. In a vertical tasting of the 2002, 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010 vintages, each proved very drinkable still with the 2008 showing itself to be the standout. Even the first vintage, the 2002, while showing signs of aging and oxidation had evolved rather than spoiled and in doing so provided an interesting experience.
The Cascade First Harvest isn’t the most adventurous annual beer going around these days, but nor does it doesn’t pretend to be. It is, however, a well-balanced, flavoursome and very approachable beer with an interesting – and authentic – story behind it. In an industry that often has more froth and bubble in the advertising copy than substance to the beer, it is exactly what it claims to be.
The 10th anniversary release of Cascade First Harvest will be available for a limited time only from the first week of May at premium retailers nationally. RRP: $19.99 per 375ml four-pack. Each 375ml bottle contains 1.6 standard drinks/5.5% ABV.
The new season’s barley malt (pale) from Tasmania and a small amount of crystal malt is added to the brew.
It was malted in the Cascade Malt House on 22 February. Cascade is the only Australian brewery to malt its barley on-site.
Gairdner pale malt plus a small amount of drum roasted crystal malt is added to give the brew a full-roasted flavour and slightly darker colour.
This year’s three experimental, first-time hop varieties have been named with a nod to the history of the Tasmanian hop growing industry. Valleyfield (aroma hop), Lanoma (flavour hop) and Tynwald (bitterness hop) are all original hop drying kilns – otherwise known as ‘oast houses’ – in Tasmania. Amongst many others which were built more than 100 years ago, these kilns still stand today in the Derwent Valley.
Valleyfield in New Norfolk is the birthplace of Australia’s commercial hop industry and initially presented an irrigation challenge for Ebenezer Shoobridge, who established and pioneered the hop industry in Tasmania. In 1872, an engine was erected to raise water from the Derwent for irrigation at Valleyfield. The water was pumped into a well next to the engine house and lifted from there 26 feet to the troughing which carried it to the fields. The red brick engine house still stands today.
The aroma hops named after Valleyfield have been developed as an alternative to European aroma hops such as Saaz, Tettnanger and Hallertauer. With low levels of bitter acids and an essential oil profile similar to European noble hops it is expected this hop will contribute a noticeable floral character to this years brew.
The first of the hop kilns on the Lanoma estate was built in the 1920s. Located in Westerway, the larger kiln was built in 1938 and was used as a community kiln for smaller growers in the area.
These hops have high alpha acid content and are expected to provide solid bittering and also earthy characters which should add depth to the flavour profile to this year’s version. Although never specifically pursued in Australia, this hop is thought to have some potential for use in low trellis hop production. Developed in Tasmania, it is related by pedigree to the Super Styrian varieties developed in Slovenia.
The brick Tynwald kiln built in 1819 was joined by a second brick kiln in the early 1870s and a third timber kiln in the early 1900s. Purchased by Pam Moore in 1971, the Tynwald Oasthouse was converted into a residence, museum and gallery which is still open to the public.
This hop is an early ripening high alpha acid hop which provides neutral bittering.
*The author was a guest of the Cascade Brewery at the hop harvest.