Examining the Mysteries of an Annual Harvest

All About Beer Magazine - Volume 35, Issue 5
November 14, 2014 By Heather Vandenengel

Special Deliveries 

Throughout harvest, communication is essential between hop growers and brokers, and breweries.

“I have a big white board in my drying office, just to keep track of it—which brewers are coming on what day, how much they want, what varieties and a contact number,” says Weathers. The farm works with about 20 breweries and will sell about 20,000 pounds of wet hops throughout the season.

Once a grower has identified that a field used for wet hops is ready to be picked, the hustle begins. The picking process is the same, except the hops never reach the kiln. Instead, Weathers flips a switch on the conveyor belt, turns it backward and pours the hops into cherry bins, low shallow containers in which the hops are weighed before they are loaded into trucks for delivery.

fresh hops
Fresh hops at Goschie Farms

Airflow and breathability of packaging are essential, so mesh onion bags can work for smaller shipments. Many growers use larger cherry bins for truck shipments. Hopunion LLC, a Yakima-based hop supplier that markets green hops and sells about 30,000 to 35,000 pounds annually, has even designed a special kind of box with pre-printed holes for shipments across country. Heat is detrimental to wet hops, so cross-country shipments are packaged with dry ice in the box, while breweries within driving distance of the hop farm may use reefers—refrigerated trucks—to transport them safely.

Up in Yakima, it’s also a busy time of the year for the area UPS, which works with growers and brokers to pick up hops, load them onto planes and make sure they reach their destination on next-day air.

Hop shipments “are a significant portion of business for us,” says Akil White, an account manager who has been with UPS for 10 years. He is in contact with hop growers starting in July to get a forecast of how many planes UPS should reserve and what kind of equipment it will need for shipping wet hops. Arrangements depend on the size, but all are shipped UPS Next Day Air.

There are, of course, risks and pitfalls. Labor Day, which falls at the end of the first weekend of harvest, has been a problem for growers shipping wet hops because no one—UPS, FedEx or United States Postal Service—ships on that Monday, and, as one grower observed, “Hops don’t care if it’s a Saturday” or a holiday.

In the Brewhouse 

Once they’ve arrived safely, wet hops can be used at any point in the brewing process, from bittering to flavoring to finishing. Some brewers may produce 100 percent wet hop beers, while others use them solely for late additions and dry hopping. Because the hops don’t arrive with details like alpha acid percentage, which allow the brewer to calculate bitterness, brewing them comes with its own set of challenges.

“The thing that’s fun from about these beers, from a creative point of view, is that I know nothing about them,” says Dresler. “I don’t get any field alpha or oil information. I kind of like to brew blind; it gives that year’s vintage a more unique character. When the hops come in, I get a basic recipe from the year before and I get a sense of the beers from years doing it. I like to base my formulation by rubbing the hops and getting the aroma and oil content just from the feel in my hands, and I’ll adjust my brewing from that and as I go along.”

Kevin Smith, owner and head brewer at Bale Breaker Brewing Co. in Yakima, brews a 100 percent wet hop beer called Piled High Imperial Fresh Hop Ale. He designed the beer so it’s about 7.8%, but targets the IBUs (International Bittering Units) at 70 because “it gives us a window to play with the bitterness,” he says. “If we miss high, a 7.8% beer that is 90 IBUs is still enjoyable, and if it’s only 50 IBUs, it’s still enjoyable and desirable.”

bale breaker
Bale Breaker Brewing Co. is located one mile from a 1,000-acre hop farm.

He might also have the shortest, and easiest, hop commute, as the brewery is located one mile from the main headquarters of Smith’s family 1,000-acre hop farm, B.T. Loftus Ranches. Smith’s brother Patrick runs operations on the farm while he, his sister Meghann Quinn and her husband, Kevin Quinn, opened a 30-barrel brewhouse, surrounded on three sides by hop fields. When he brewed Piled High last year, he simply called his brother on a day that he knew they were picking Simcoe and had about six minutes from when the hops were picked up to when they went into the brew kettle. Then he timed it so the dry-hopping would overlap on a day they were picking Mosaic or Citra.

Wet hop beers, especially ones brewed with 100 percent wet hops, also run the risk of producing undesirable flavors—tobacco and unpleasant vegetal notes. Brewing requires a balance and awareness of the style, says Smith. 

“You’re putting such a massive amount of vegetal material in that you get green flavors, which we tend to think that should be acceptable in wet hop beer,” he says. “A true fresh hop beer shouldn’t necessarily taste exactly like an IPA because it is a different style. That chlorophyll green hop flavor, it should be slightly present, in my opinion, and it also lets the consumer know this beer has never had dried hops.” 

Hop growers and anyone who has handled hops in their raw form will also appreciate the wet hop beer’s full glory, says Patrick Smith.

“It’s how I see hops most of the year. I see them in that form and so being able to experience them in the beer is really cool. There’s no other style of beer that has this close, direct connection with the plant.”

Heather Vandenengel
Heather Vandenengel is a freelance beer journalist and news editor for All About Beer Magazine. She is based in Montreal, QC, but takes any excuse to travel, especially when it’s for beer.