Hop Selection - Part One, Harvest

  • October 22nd, 2019
  • By Stephen Rich

You can smell it before you see it - the bright aroma of green in the air. Then the fields appear, and the unmistakable scent of fresh hops fills the air. It’s late September and hop harvest is underway in Yakima Washington, where brewers from all over the globe come to choose the best hops for their next brewing season. Hop Selection has begun.

Hops are one of four primary ingredients used in modern beer making, and were popularized during the American Craft Beer Revolution from the mid-1970s until present. American Pale Ales and IPAs were the two styles that showcased hops in a way that no other styles had done previously. Today, very few craft breweries exist without brewing a version of one or the other hop-focused beer styles.

Hops provide bitterness to beer, balancing the natural sweetness that comes from malt. Hops also provide flavour and aroma perceptions that range from floral, grassy or herbal, to fruity, zesty or tropical. They can be mild or potent, and everywhere in between. Perhaps most importantly, hops naturally inhibit spoilage in beer – so they help our beer stay fresh longer.

Cowbell Brewing visits Yakima for Hop Selection every year to choose which “lots” of hops to use in its beer. Since hops are an agricultural product, each lot can vary slightly or largely in character, even within the same cultivar. Some lots come from different fields, some are right next to each other. Inevitably, each lot will see a different combination of sun, temperature fluctuations, wind, precipitation and soil variance. Therefore, each lot may have distinguishable characteristics – just like wine grapes of the same varietal grown in different regions will show their own nuanced flavours and aromas, creating different wines.

Cascade Lot 4 may be fragrant with zesty grapefruit character, but Lot 5 may be specifically zesty and floral. Both may work for some beers, but in the case of Doc Perdue’s Bobcat, the vibrant grapefruit aromas need to be apparent and consistent, so Lot 4 will be selected. The only way to ensure the correct hops are chosen is to go to the source and rub, then select the hops.


GROWING & HARVESTING
Hops grow on a bine (similar to a vine, but climbing in a helix pattern rather than using tendrils or suckers) approximately 16 feet towards the sky on a trellis in fields that cover hundreds of acres. Hops grow all across the globe, generally along the 45th parallel and are heavily showcased in regions like Washington, England, Czech Republic, and Southern Germany. On the other side of the equator New Zealand and Australia are also known for hop growing, with their harvest happening in April. Each growing region showcases its own distinct terroir, and thus its own regional characteristics. In the US, the majority of the hops Cowbell selects are grown for their zesty aromatic sensations, and are used in its hoppiest beers.

In Yakima, hops hit their peak in late August and September with each cultivar growing to its optimal maturity at different times. Cowbell generally visits toward the end of the month to maximize the many different lots from which to choose. The harvest process is an orchestra of laborious farm work and modern mechanical innovation. It all starts in the dense hop fields.

The team is cutting and collecting hops off the bines; a truck leads and collects the bines as a tractor behind uses the Top Cutter to remove them from the trellis. The team will drive up and down the rows cutting two at a time, then shuttling the fresh hops immediately to the nearby processing plant. Time is of the essence – the freshly harvested hops need to get into the kiln to dry, and lock in all the aromatic characteristics so brewers get exactly the hops they are looking for.

All September, trucks run back and forth from the fields to the plant delivering fresh loads to be processed. The scale and engineering in these spaces is incredible. In Part 2, we’ll dive into the separation and kilning process that locks in all the delicious hop character, and see the impressive scale of these agricultural innovators that help drive the craft beer industry.


Appendix:

Before the harvest, fields stand tall with trellis systems covered in hop bines. By late September, more than half the fields will be cleared, leaving only the posts for next years crop to begin climbing.

A beautiful single hop cone, fully intact, then torn open (on the right) to expose the rich lupulin oils that contain the aroma, flavour and bittering potential of the hop.

Every hop cultivar looks and feels different. Some are small and round cones, and others like this Chinook hop are large and shapely.

Hops like to grow in clusters on the bine, almost always with dark green leaves and bright green cones.