It’s that time of the year when brewers delight in rubbing sticky, leafy cones between their fingers, picking apart the petals to reveal a bright yellow oily pollen that will mildew and disappear soon if not treated properly. For beer drinkers it’s the time when we get to sample the ephemeral product in its purest form that we call fresh hops (not wet) from the bine. Fresh hops are i deally used in brewing less than 24 hours after harvest; otherwise, they are kiln-dried for future use, like 99.9% of the annual harvest. The harvest season largely takes part in Oregon’s Willamette Valley and Washington’s Yakima Valley, where a largely migrant worker base comes in to cut the bines and run them through a processing facility separating the hop cones (actually a kind of flower) and leaves from the bine. The bines are then run through a series of vibrating “dribble” conveyor belts at various inclines that help separate the leaves from the cones, with a final product containing only about 1% leaves. The hops are then spread out onto food-safe cloth surface drying beds that are approximately 24 inches deep. The beds are hung above large burners so the heat travels up and through the porous beds, drying the hops at 130 degrees Fahrenheit for seven hours before they are compressed into 200lb bales that are often still sewn up by hand.
The 2017 Hop Harvest began in earnest at farms in the Pacific Northwest over the last week or two. In Oregon Chinooks hops were among the first varieties harvested and have been used in the first batch of fresh hop beers that are hitting shelves a week or more in advance of previous years. In Silverton, Oregon, 3rd generation hop farmer Gayle Goschie has gone from an organic hop pioneer to operating the first Salmon Safe certified hop farm in the country. During the hop harvest, her smallish farm runs 24 hours a day, six days a week, for about a month. Goschie says this year’s hop harvest has been one of the smoothest after “a wet spring the hops had ideal weather for most of the growing season.” In Washington’s Yakima Valley the worldwide hop grower and supplier Hopsteiner began its harvest last Thursday and also reports a good growing season, with a normal yield and good quality crop. Hopsteiner’s Bill Elkins says, “in 2017 we have had a nice spring (no frost), a normal summer, and access to plentiful irrigation water. 2015 and 2016 had minor issues with water availability and some pest/disease pressure.”
Portland’s Lucky Labrador Brewpub will host its 12th annual hop harvest party, featuring hops grown on the brewery’s patio, as well as backyard hops brougt in by the public, on Wednesday, Sept 6th. Without some of the resources of hop farms like Goschie’s, the abnormally high temperatures Portland experienced this summer actually delayed the local crop a little bit. Gayle Goschie says, “The hot weather spike fooled the plant into beginning its flowering sequence before the bine had reached its potential height. End result, reduced yields.” Still, you can join in on the fun by helping to pick the hops from the bines or contributing your own homegrown or wild hops while enjoying beer and hop-infused chicken wings on Lucky Lab’s Hawthorne Brewpub patio from 4-9pm on September 6th.
With Oregon farms harvesting Centennial hops early, a number of local brewers are already showcasing them. Ex Novo Brewing has already canned up a fresh version of Eliot IPA “with a huge amount of dank fresh Centennial hops.” Hopworks has also just released “Total Blackout,” a Cascadian Dark Ale using fresh Centennials that were picked and added to the beer on the day of the total eclipse. Bottles and draft are available now.
Baerlic Brewing releases the first of its many fresh hop beers of the season with “Early Bird” fresh hop pale using Centennials going on tap today, Mon. August 29th. Next up, this Thursday 8/31, Baerlic releases a Helles with fresh Santiam hops, and on September 12th the brewery release “Pioneer,” a fresh hop Extra Special Bitter with fresh Mt. Hood hops.
Portland Brewing/Pyramid brewers stuff bags of fresh hops for their Fresh Hop Outburst IPA
Pyramid and Portland Brewing made a fresh Centennial hopped Outburst IPA that I was lucky enough to be present for. from the trip to the hop farm to the addition of the fresh hops to the beer back at the brewery just a few hours later. Look for Fresh Hop Outburst IPA at the pub in NW Portland and pubs in town this week.
Most hop crops take three or more years after planting to yield their full crops, and with unexpected conditions like weather, fires, or major breweries switching varieties, there can be the occasional short supply or even surplus. Elkins says, “Mother Nature is always our biggest concern. Wind, rain, drought…” are major issues, but also the changing labor market directly relating to the current U.S. administrations immigration crackdowns. “With low unemployment rates and uncertainty in the area of immigration law, we are reacting to our labor needs by introducing more cutting-edge technology each year. We harvest our hops via an innovative method that uses hop combines to pick the hops. Combines also reduce our usage of trucks for transporting hops to the kiln, which continually reduces our carbon footprint.”
Gayle Goschie finds stability of the market her biggest concern, not weather or staff. “I wonder how many times my grandparents and parents would have answered that same question with the same answer? Ha!” says Goschie. Her farm once grew only three varieties of hops for large brewers, but with craft brewers’ rise and growing demand, the farm now grows ten varieties to accommodate. “I think every hop grower needs to look at how they wish to involve their business in chasing the new trend or not.” Since tearing out one variety to replace it with another takes years and not weeks, it’s a commitment a hop grower should be sure about. ” I’d have to say I’m holding back slightly and remaining nimble,” says Goschie on her strategy. Continuing on the issue of stability in the industry, she says, “These continue to be exciting times in hop growing and brewing. But so many changes. To predict volume needs and hop variety needs is requiring more speculation than we have seen for some time.” In Oregon, growers like Goschie have a harder time than in Washington’s Yakima Valley because of our higher humidity. Salmon Safe hops provide another difficulty. Salmon Safe requires less and “softer” chemicals to be used in farming, reducing the pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides that traditional growers use that can move through the soil more quickly and contaminate the watershed (and thus adversely affect salmon). Instead of chemicals, Salmon Safe growers use natural predators to control unwanted pests and try to manage humidity to decrease fungus.
Gayle Goschie of Goschie Farms explains the hop drying process
At Hopsteiner the name of the game is long-term planning to predict supply/demand issues and contract commitments by brewers for hops. Issues that some are concerned about include the contracts that brewers enter to receive their hops and keep availability of their desired varieties. Yakima hop broker 47 Hops recently filed for bankruptcy, blaming brewers who were not meeting their contractual obligations. “Sales numbers change, brand portfolios change,” says Elkins on working with brewers on these issues. “We work one-on-one with our customers to fine-tune plans. Add more of one variety, reduce another, commit to future years. This has kept the marketplace orderly for us.” There is no doubt that a slowdown in the craft brewing industry is meaning some brewers have contracted more than they need and sometimes have issues making payments they have contracted for out many years.
One of Oregon’s advantages is the Oregon State University hop breeding program in Corvallis. Thanks to OSU’s Shaun Townsend, Oregon growers may get first crack at new varieties offering unique flavors and aromas or resistance to mildew and pests. “It’s so fortunate to have the strong programs based in Oregon’s growing areas of breeding, hop plant pathology, fermentation science, and sensory,” notes Goschie. “Hops have increasingly become the focus of the beer industry, not water, malt or yeast, but the latest new variety and/or innovative techniques of utilizing them. Currently trending is hop/lupulin powders; though suppliers like Hopsteiner have been producing them for many years, they are just now catching on with younger breweries. Elkins notes, “powder can be a powerful tool for brewers looking to achieve bright flavors and aromas. By freezing the hops and removing a large portion of the vegetative material you create a concentrated powder. What is left is all the goodies you want from the hop.”
Hop drying beds
The negative is a higher cost from processing them, so the question will be if the reward bears out the higher expense. “The cost/benefit ration has to be vetted.” So even though you may be seeing new “Cryo” IPAs using hop powder at all the trendy breweries these days, it’s far from a sure thing to stick around. Elkins says Hopsteiner is still waiting for more feedback on cost of usage and for brewers to determine how much hop powder they need to achieve the desired flavor profile and that pans out cost-wise. “2017 will prove out if powder is feasible for brewers of all sizes.”
These days consumers are nearly as interested in the hot new hop variety as the brewers are. Denali, Lemondrop, and Eureka are some of the varieities Bill Elkins is most excited about right now, but he notes the next top experimental pants include X04190, X06297, X09326 and X10416. As American hop tastes have shifted slightly from citrusy to tropical, the next hot new flavors are of “Pineapple. Juicy Fruit, lemon, orange/vanilla, and berries are just some of the unique characteristics” to look for, according to Elkins.