Homebrewing Info

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Hop Union recently held its 5th annual Hops and Brew School at their facility in Yakima, Washington.  This event draws in brewers from all over the country for two 2-day sessions of hops and brewing seminars as well as tours of hops fields and processing facilities.  I attended the conference on behalf of the Boeing Employees Wine and Beer Makers Club.  Over the course of the school, I compiled notes on the lectures and tours and will be consolidating them down to focus on information useful at a homebrewing level.  There will be a basic level of understanding of hops and brewing assumed in the summaries.  

General

            The class is held at the end of August right as the hop harvesting season is getting underway.  Early in the summer Hop Union sends out invitations to the conference.  The registration fee includes two days of seminars and tours, breakfast snacks, lunches, dinners, and plenty of beer.  It is a tremendous learning experience and a hell of a bargain for the price. 

Tours of Facilities

            During the course of the class, students are taken on two main tours, the first being a tour around the Hop Union grounds and the second being a tour hop fields and harvesting processing facilities.

            On the tour around the Hop Union facility, you get a chance to see Hop Union receiving hops from around the area (Oregon, Washington, and Idaho primarily).  After the bundles of hops are taken off the trucks, they are arranged off in lines where they are checked for moisture, samples are taken, bundles are labeled, and they are deemed "ready" to move into cold storage.  On the day that we were there, a relatively "wet" set of hops came in from Oregon.  These hops were a concern because they were more prone to spontaneous combustion than others.  Hence, they were "quarantined" off to a group in the warehouse.  The warehouse fire that happened a while back happened right on that site.  Three bundles of hops were actually blown out through the roof and landed hundreds of yards away. 

            One thing I kept in mind during this process was how as homebrewers we make every effort to keep our hops as cold as possible.  Looking at how long the hops had to have been on the trucks and then how long they were sitting outside, I'm a little less paranoid about leaving my hops in the car if I have to run another errand while out getting beer ingredients.  Sure, it is probably best not to get them worn, but after seeing everything else the hops have been through in the whole harvesting process, worse things have happened.

            After seeing their in-processing of hops, we then toured around the warehouses looking copious amounts of hops.  It was mindblowing to realize that the hops that they would get in only represent ~1% of all of the hops in the country.  We then toured through their lab where they conducted testing for all sorts of things like alpha acids, oils, humulone levels, etc.  We also got to see their "bar" which was a great place to hang out, have a beer, play some darts, shoot some pool, and smoke a cigar afterwards. 

            We then looked through their palletizing machine.  It begins with an area to load in the bales where they get torn up.  They then go into the hammer mill where they are pulverized.  All of the bales get mixed together to help balance out variations in alpha acids.  The bits of hops are then forced into a pellet die where they become the "goat food" looking things that we are familiar with.  The pellets are then sent through a shaker and screens to get a nice consistent size before they are fed into bags, weighed out, and then vacuum sealed.  It was a huge piece of machinery all go get those hops down to a manageable size.

            On the tour of the hop fields, we first visited an organic field.  I think the first thing I noticed while we were there was the sheer number of bugs flying around.  After visiting the non-organic fields, the number of bugs present at the first field was even more pronounced.  I hate to say it but the sprays used to keep pests at bay really make a difference.  They have been looking into water spray/irrigation systems from above which help cut down pests as well.  We didn't spend too long at this field but were told that instead of the normal harvests of a couple thousand pounds per acre, these fields were getting as low as 400 lb/acre.  That kind of a sacrifice in yield is tremendous and very difficult to maintain a profit on.  New Zealand is lucky not to have the pests that we do here!  Hence that is where most of the organic hops of the world come from.

            I'll jump ahead a bit and discuss the harvesting.  So, hops are typically grown up a trellis, with four main vines heading up from the crown.  They will climb up 18 feet and produce the most and best hops up at the top.  To harvest them, first a machine works its way through the field cutting them off at the bottom.  Think of a truck with chainsaws sticking out from the front bumper.  Once the chords and vines are hanging only from the top, the second team moves into place.  First there is a "pickup truck" with a very wide bed with high walls (10-12 feet).  Right behind it is a second harvester truck comes through, this time with "chainsaws" sticking out of a lift on the top.  The pickup truck begins driving through the field (driving basically into the vines so that they move over the top of the truck) with the harvester right behind it such that as the harvester cuts the vines at the top, they fall and lay down into the bed of the pickup truck.  The vines start to pile up very quickly.

We toured two hop processing facilities (one medium sized and one large).  They were pretty much the same between the two so I will describe the basic process.  The trucks with the hops in the back drive up to the harvesting facility.  People then get on top of the trucks and start attaching the vines to karabiners which carry the vines up a good 50 feet so they are hanging in the air.  They then slowly move towards the processing machine which is best described as a "vertical food-processing chainsaw."  The hops and leaves are stripped off of the hanging vines and fall through an array of sharp teeth and claws.  I think some additional stripping off of "vine arms" happens down below, but trust me, with everything flying around, whirring, and tearing, the last thing you want to do is lean over to see something.  They said that people regularly lose fingers, hands, arms, and anything else dangly in there.  Keep them in mind the next time you have a beer.

So, the machine then starts moving the hops, leaves, and stems through a series of belts and shakers aimed at ending up with just cones leaving the facility on a conveyor belt.  These belts carry the hops off to the drying facility where they are heated up in massive beds for several hours.  Talk about steamy and grassy, these rooms were like a sauna for hops.  Over hours, the hops would reach temperatures of 140-150F and dry out.  Once they reached the desired moisture content, they would be taken to a facility to cool, typically for 24 hours.  This step is important for helping reduce the incidence of spontaneous combustion.  Once the hops had cooled down, they would be loaded up into the baler which would drop in a hundred pounds of hops into a bale, pack it down, drop another hundred pounds in and pack it down once more.  Then two workers would seam up the bale and get it ready to be sent off.

Overall, an amazing process and a lot of effort spent bringing hops in so that we can make beer.  Talking with one of the farmer I learned that this last year was the first year in 15 years that they had made a profit on their hop fields.  Keep these guys in mind when you cringe about spending $3 an ounce.  While the prices will come down, it needs to be a price that can sustain our growers.  That won't be anywhere near what it previously was.

I think the other thing that blows my mind when thinking about the hop harvesting process is that this is just one of the four ingredients of beer.  Malting in another complicated process, all designed to deliver fermentables to our beer and yeast management is another area where we could spend a day talking about the complexities of propagation.  Even water has its own intrigues.  Then I think of wine making.  Sure, they put a bunch of effort into growing their grapes, but these farmers put just as much into their hops.  Harvest grapes is much simpler than hops and then after you've harvested, you are pretty much set to make wine. 

So then next time that you brew a beer, take a second to think of all of the people and processes needed to bring you the ingredients you have to make your perfect glass of beer.  There is a lot of thought and sweat that went into it, even before you got there!