HOP SELECTION - PART TWO, PROCESSING

  • October 29th, 2019
  • By Stephen Rich


They call it Hop Country. In the thousands of acres in Yakima Washington, hop fields stand tall, supporting a growing industry of breweries all across the globe. To the average brewer, standing there in the middle of one of these fields is a great feeling – you appreciate the amount of work that goes into making that field happen.

Most commercial hop cultivars take 5 to 10 years of research and trials before a full field is planted and the mature hop cones can be used for brewing. The work starts in a small field, gets to the lab, back to the fields, out to brewers, marketing, the lab again, a big field, and finally a new hop hits the market. But that is still just the beginning of the journey. There is no time of the year when this is more evident than harvest. When the hop harvest is in full swing, that means hop processing is working overtime!

FROM THE FIELD TO THE PLANT
Most commercial hop cultivars take 5 to 10 years of research and trials before a full field is planted and the mature hop cones can be used for brewing. The work starts in a small field, gets to the lab, back to the fields, out to brewers, marketing, the lab again, a big field, and finally a new hop hits the market. But that is still just the beginning of the journey. There is no time of the year when this is more evident than harvest. When the hop harvest is in full swing, that means hop processing is working overtime!

The Hop Harvest in Yakima lasts approximately 5 to 6 weeks, and in that short amount of time all the hops must come off the field, and also be processed. There is no time to waste. Like most agricultural goods, hops will begin to deteriorate once they are picked if they are not preserved. Yakima has adapted processes and technologies long perfected by German growers to naturally preserve all the aromatic and bittering oils in the hops that brewers want. So, once the hops come off the field, they are rushed to the plant, and the fury begins.

All day long trucks will shuttle hop bines to the plant, then head back to the field to collect more. Once the bines get to the plant, they begin a systematic journey on their way to the bail. The first step is separation. Workers individually hang each bine on conveyors that lift the bines towards the first stage of separation.

This first machine is built tall and narrow with spinning agitators inside, designed to knock hops off the bine, but without damaging them. It’s a challenging task, but these herculean machines balance precision and force. By the end, only hops with some leaves are left on the conveyor to continue their journey.

From here, a series of vertically angled conveyors rush upwards in several waterfalls of hops. The heavier hops fall below and are collected, while the lighter stems and leaves are separated out.

After they have traveled over several different sorting conveyors and the team is confident only the hop cones themselves are left, they are headed for the kiln. These kilns are among the largest section of these hop processing plants. Each kilning bay is about 3 to 4 feet deep, and is about 100 feet wide, and several hundreds of feet long.

Conveyors usher hops to the end of the kiln, where they are spread out in even lengths forming a sea of hops. Underneath are perforated floors where warm air is pumped to dry the hops. This kilning is the first step in locking in the character of the hops – but it is also a sensitive one. Too much heat, or too much time, can over dry the hops and destroy some of the valuable aromatic oils that brewers want. Not warm enough or if too much moisture is left, then the hops could mold and deteriorate.

In plants like this one, there is an amazing amount of engineering, automation and precision to ensure that the hops leave the kiln just as perfect as they arrived. You see, IPA Quality Assurance starts here!

After the kiln, the dried hops are collected and transferred to huge piles to cool and stabilize. They’ll rest here for hours until ready to be bailed. The aroma here is unbelievable. Mounds of hop towering 15 feet and more in the air; it’s a brewer’s paradise. But no, there is no diving into the hop pile… After all, hops are a food product. Trust me, I asked…

The final step at the plant is compression and bailing. The dried whole-cone hops are compressed into large rectangular bails and wrapped in burlap. Here the hops are stable, and ready to be shipped out to secondary hop processing plants that will turn them into a salable product. The goal of the hop farmer is to get the hops to a stable point. It will be up to the hop distributors to determine how they will sell them.

The hop distributors look after their brewing customers to ensure that brewers all get the hops needed, in the required format. Those bales might be packed in 20kg boxes as Leaf Hops, or converted into Hop Extract or Oils. Most will be pelletized, which is the most efficient and stable form of hops after packaging.

The package though is still far away. Now that we’ve followed our hops from the field to the bale, we still need to examine and select our lots. You see, each farm is different. Even within the same farm, different lots of land may produce different hops of the same variety.

In Part 3, we’ll dig into the selection process, and learn why it’s called the Hop Rub, and why my hands were green for days.


APPENDIX:

Bines of hops work their way to the separator in an orchestra of labour and automation.

The kilns showcase an impressive sea of hops, and one of the best aromas you can imagine.

A perfect cross section in the kiln showing the depth of the bed, and the perforated floor underneath.