It’s that time of year! Hops are getting heavy on the bine and need to be cut loose. Hops are widely known to be one of the four classic beer ingredients (along with yeast, barley malt and water), but are still probably the most mysterious to many beer drinkers. I believe the reason is that hops do not typically appear in other everyday items (except maybe my all-natural deodorant). In contrast, everyone deals with water, most people have used yeast for bread, and many have probably eaten barley as a whole grain. Hops are kind of odd, but also wonderful. Hops give beer its aroma, bitterness, and they add interesting flavors. They also provide antimicrobial properties that help beer stay fresh.
Hops grow on these climbing vine-like plants called “bines” (unlike vines they don’t have tendrils to latch on, but wrap around a support). Each plant flowers in the late summer, and it is these flowers usually called hop “cones” that we harvest and use in beer. As flowers, it should be no surprise that they are very aromatic. The explosion of American IPAs and session IPAs in the past decade or so has certainly led to wider appreciation of hops and all that they add to beer.
This year, we are eagerly awaiting some freshly harvested hops from local farms as well as an assortment of wonderful varieties from around the world. As those of you who went to our demo at the American Craft Beer Fest will attest to, hop flavor and aroma not only varies by type, but also by where they are grown.
So, since there are only a few weeks per year when the hops are ripe for the picking (and not yet picked), I decided to head out to our local New England hop farms to roam through the fields and get up close with these important plants. My first stop of the year was Four Star farms in Northfield, MA. When I arrived, knowing that this was a relatively new operation, I was quite stunned and impressed to find acre upon acre of towering hop bines. It’s quite a site to see and it’s also really cool to walk among the rows of hops.
Unlike most crops, hops are extremely tall and require a fair bit of infrastructure to maintain (think telephone poles with aircraft cable). Because the full-grown plants can weigh 20 pounds each, the cables and poles that hold up the bines have to be pretty heavy-duty.
Right before harvest, you can pluck the hop cones from the plant and get a whiff of the fresh aroma. This year, the cones were looking really nice and quite dense. In the New England area, it is said that hop plants need to be in the ground for three years before they build a dense enough root system to support a substantial crop.
Many of the hops at Four Star are past the 3-year mark and it shows. Of course, there are always new ones being planted. As Liz from Four Star gave us a tour of the crop rows and showed us around, we marveled at the sites and contemplated how much effort it was to plant the hops, and also how much more work it would be to harvest them.
As we made our way back to the car, Liz invited us to check out the spelt harvest–one of the perks of getting to know your local hop farmers! I got to ride on the combine and watch as acres of spelt were gathered. Our Saison of the Western Ghats bears this ancient grain in its grist, so it was exciting to think that some of those spelt grains could make their way into one of our next batches.
After a fun journey through the spelt fields, we made our way across the farm and back home.
The next trip would be to the Hop Yard in Maine. After Sierra Nevada’s Beer Camp, I made a trip up to this newly established farm not far from Portland. They were having a morning kegs and eggs event right in the hop yard! I got to meet the farmers, check out the plants in their second year and taste some excellent local beer. Peter gave me a walk-through of the hop plants as I enjoyed my eggwich. I think that the steadily increasing hop growth in the New England area will benefit farmers and brewers alike, since they can share not only beer and ingredients, but resources and knowledge about hops. The guys at the Hop Yard have been great about keeping us in the loop with all kinds of info about harvesting and packaging of hops.
Hop farms like Four Star and the Hop Yard are pioneering a new era in East Coast hops. We are very excited to be working with them and learning about what makes local hops unique as well as how to best use them. It’s easy to see that every year, our locally grown hops get even better. Hop growing used to be centered around New York State back in the 1800’s and early 1900’s. Since then, much of it has moved out west. Now, hops are returning to the region and we are happy to be able to enjoy and experiment with locally grown varieties.
This week, we are looking forward to making our first wet-hopped beer (which uses hops that are plump and freshly picked). This is the only time of the year when this is possible! Stay tuned to hear about the short journey from the hop plant to the tap.