This farm visit was by far the best smelling visit I have ever done. Mmmmmm… hops: smells like beer. I’ll talk about agriculture just about anywhere, but (no offense to the dairies and the sheep farms I visited) hands down, talking about beer in a hop house takes the cake. The only thing that would have made this visit better is if I could have been drinking a beer during it! But, then my pictures probably wouldn’t be so great. One of the things I just love about the Pacific Northwest is the beer and the culture surrounding beer. I love learning about beer, I love drinking beer, I love trying new beers, I love visiting breweries – in fact, I consider it a personal challenge to visit every brewery in Portland, and eventually Oregon. My husband and I are well on our way to making that vision a reality. It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it, right? 🙂 The hoppy flavor of the beer here took some getting used to, and I still have a tough time with an extremely hoppy PNW IPA, but practice makes perfect, my friend, and I never give up.
Technically I took these photos the first week of September, but I’m still counting them for August. This month I visited Ben Coleman in St. Paul, Oregon to see the hop harvest and to talk about how the craft brew industry has changed how Coleman’s farm grows hops.
Ben Coleman is a 3rd generation hop grower who farms with his two cousins, father and uncle in St. Paul. The Coleman family has a long history as hop growers in the Willamette Valley – Coleman’s grandfather built the oldest block hop house still in use in the state of Oregon in the 40s when they still formed the bricks by hand – as you can see by the handprints in the image above. His family also manages eight of the 30 hop picking machines in Oregon, so as far as hop growers go, Coleman’s family is one of the bigger growers in Oregon (although Washington has much bigger growers) – his family grows about 1,000 acres of hops. The Yakima Valley of Washington far and away grows the most hops in the nation, but the climate and soil in the Willamette Valley are just right for hops – and Oregon comes in a distant second for hops production. Idaho follows Oregon in a very close third place.
Coleman’s family grows more than just hops. All told they grow about 13 crops including grass seed, green beans, table beets, corn, alfalfa, wheat, pumpkins, radish seed, cauliflower, hazelnuts, garlic seed and kale seed. Though, when I asked him what he calls himself, Coleman said he definitely identifies as a hop grower even though in acreage they grow more grass seed than hops. Coleman told me this summer’s drought has been really good for the hops – they like it dry and hot. And with the recent surge in craft brewing, his family is steadily growing their hop acreage. This is the first year in six or seven that they’ve had enough yield to necessitate harvesting hops 20 hours a day. I’ll be honest, before I moved to Oregon I had never seen hops growing – I had no idea they grow on an 18 foot trellis. Another interesting tidbit: hops are closely related to cannabis – both are in the Cannabaceae family. Unlike cannabis which has multiple uses, hops are only used for making lovely, lovely beer.
In March and April stringing begins – a specially trained crew ties strings made of hand woven coconut fiber made in Indonesia from the ground to the wire cable running between the 18 foot poles. The crews can do a one-handed tie that allows them to string between five and ten acres per day. The hop bines (that’s not a typo – hops are a bine that climb without the use of tendrils, distinguishing it from a vine) grab tightly to the coconut fiber, making it an ideal choice for a trellis. Another alternative is thick paper rolled into a rope, and in Europe growers use metal twine. About three to four weeks after stringing, the plants must be trained up the trellis by hand. The crew passes through twice and prunes to ensure the bines all grow to the same height.
Whether it’s coconut fiber or metal twine, it all comes down at harvest time. Figuring out when it’s time to harvest is a very precise science: the hops are regularly sampled as harvest time nears and dried in a food dehydrator to test for the proper amount of lupulin oil – what provides the distinct flavor and aroma to beer. Coleman’s family has retrofitted old combines to be specialty hop harvesters. First, what they call the “mosquito” comes through and cuts the bines (and the strings) at the base of the plant near the ground. Then the second harvester pushes a truck in front of it and cuts the bines at the top, where they fall into the truck. A crew follows behind picking up any bines that have fallen or were missed.
From there, the trucks drive to the hop house where the part they’re after, the hop flower, is separated from the bine and dried. First the bines are strung up on a belt that moves them inside the house. Another interesting tidbit: in this image you can see birds flying around above the truck – swallows take advantage of the bugs that are roused into the air during the harvest process – they were all over the fields and dipping and diving above the truck.
The bines travel into the hop house where they take an intense (and loud) beating to get the hops off the bine. They travel through a number of conveyor belts, turbines, and shakers to separate the flower from the leaves and bines. The leftover leaves and bines are composted and later spread onto the fields.
When all that’s left is the hop flowers, the next (very important) step is drying them. The hops are spread at a precise depth in a kiln heated from below at 135-140 degrees. It takes about eight hours for the hops to go from about 75 to 80 percent moisture to the target nine to ten percent moisture. One of these square kilns holds between 12 and 20 bales of hops, depending on the variety. For perspective, one acre of hops produces between five to 12 bales of hops. One bale is equivalent to about 400,000 12 ounce bottles of beer. If you drank one of those bottles each day, it would take you over 1,000 years to drink one bale of hops!
As I mentioned, the key part of the hop flower that brewers are interested in is the yellow waxy substance inside the hop flower called lupulin – not only does this give beer it’s distinctive aroma and flavor, it also contains antibiotic properties which limit bacterial growth allowing the yeast to ferment. Different hop varieties contain different amounts of lupulin. Coleman is holding cascade hops, which his family grows for Anheuser Busch. Coleman grows 16 varieties of hops, some of which he directly sell to both Anheuser Busch and MillerCoors, but many of which he sells to Indie Hops which supplies Oregon-grown hops exclusively to craft brewers. Coleman told me that the craft beer industry has drastically changed the way they grow hops. “The whole craft brew thing is really exciting, but we went from growing four to five varieties of hops really well to growing 16 different varieties. Sometimes we make a mistake now.” Not only that but the craft brews, particularly that hoppy IPA I mentioned, uses about ten times as much hops as high-volume domestic beers.
The craft brew industry has also changed hop production by way of traceability. Craft brewers have placed an emphasis on using local hops, which requires that Coleman do a really good job of labeling his bales with both what kind of hops they are and where they were grown. Coleman foresees that it won’t be long until he’s labeling with specific field-by-field information. Coleman said he spends a lot of his time making sure that labeling process goes just right. Keeping those 16 varieties straight is important because different hops have different uses – some are bittering hops, some are aroma hops – and they’re used at different times during the brewing process.
Craft brewing has also changed hop production from a food safety perspective. It used to be that hops were added to the boiling part of the beer making process, which essentially pasteurized the hop, but craft brewers also do what’s called dry hopping where they add the hops after the boil, usually in the secondary fermenter, to get that super hoppy aroma characteristic of an IPA. Adding the hops after the boil means the hops are not pasteurized, so brewers are demanding a much cleaner process of hop production on Coleman’s end to help reduce the risk of infection. Don’t freak out about your IPA, though – like I said, lupulin has antibiotic properties, which is one of the historical reasons hops were added to beer in the first place, so the risk is inherently low. Another risk associated with hops is the risk of spontaneous combustion. Not for you, beer drinker, but for the grower and the transporter. Earlier I talked about the target moisture range of nine to ten percent, and part of that is because that prevents the bales of hops from catching on fire. Coleman told me that hop houses and warehouses have burned down in the past because of that, and his cousin just barely saved their own storage warehouse from that same fate. Walking through the warehouse, his cousin smelled something amiss and started feeling the bales until he found a few that were hot to the touch. They pulled them out of the warehouse into the field and sure enough when they slit it with a knife the whole thing went up in flames. The moral of this story is to get a good moisture reading on your hops, like Coleman is doing here. Also, Coleman is paid by the pound, so he wants to make sure that the moisture level is at that top end of the target range – the more moisture they have, the more they weigh, and the more he gets paid. From here the hops are delivered directly to cold storage and are tested for moisture and leaf and stem content. Smell is of utmost importance, so brewers get a special sample cut out of the bales and sent to them just so they can smell and verify before they put it in their beer.
That’s pretty much everything I learned about hop production. I hope you learned something, too! Now, I need a beer. Cheers.