Bottoms Up

Beer and wine in the Bay Area and beyond

Hops: A Journey from Ground to Glass

By Jay Brooks
Wednesday, October 3rd, 2012 at 7:55 am in On Beer.

Hopefully, you’ve arrived here after reading my latest column in the newspaper, The Hops Harvest. If not, go ahead, I’ll wait. Done? Okay, here we go. Below is a series of photographs I’ve taken at hop fields around the world, from Germany to Yakima, Washington. These should help better illustrate the story as they show each step along the way as hops go from the ground to your glass. Enjoy.

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This is a hop field before planting time. The wooden posts have been put in, and the wire trellises have been run, creating a grid-like pattern. The rhizomes will be planted as soon as the Spring weather is right. This was taken in the Hallertau region of Germany.

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But as harvest time approaches, the hops grow to the top of the 18-foot trellises. These were taken in Yakima, Washington.

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Here you can see what good climbers they are.

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Hops fill the rows as far as the eye can see.

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A close-up of cones on the bine, ripe for for the picking.

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When harvesting begins, a tall truck slowly works down the field, clipping the hops at the top of the wire.

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Once clipped, the long strand of hops is dropped into a truck.

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Full trucks drive to the nearby processing plant.

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The trucks full of unprocessed hops drive into the building, where the strands of hops are fed onto a series of hooks, that transport them into the adjacent room.

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The hops are essentially picked up on hooks and whisked through the air.

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Once in the next room, the hops go through a series of Rube Goldberg-like machines, which strip away the bines and the leaves.

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Through the gears and conveyors.

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Where the hops ride on a series of conveyors.

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Until eventually, the hop cones are separated from the rest of the organic material.

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The cones are then sent to the kiln.

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The kilns are very large warehouses where the hops are dried.

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The hops are placed in shallow rows, with a low, dry heat permeating the space. The hops are in the kilns removing moisture until the hops are only 8-10%, down from 80% when they were first picked.

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Once dry, the hops are moved to the next building, via a conveyor, which drops them onto a small mountain of hops.

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Mt. Hops, waiting to be baled.

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While I don’t recommend it, it is fun to jump into the pile of hops. But the downside is you spend the rest of day sticky with hop oil on your skin. But I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

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The freshly dried hops are then put in a mold that creates a bale, in a shape that resembles a large stick of butter.

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The molded hops are then encased tightly in bales, stitched together in a thick material.

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The hops are stored and transported in the bales, until ready to be boxed and sent to a brewery.

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If you cut open a bale, the packed whole hops look like this. Eventually, hops are cut into smaller packages, known as bricks, that look a bit like this.

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The bales are stored in temperature-controlled warehouses, where the cool temperature keeps them from catching on fire, a problem for compressed hops.

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But the modern harvesting of hops is not how they were traditionally picked. Before the industrial revolution, whole communities would come from town to the fields to help with the hop harvest. It was an event, where the whole community pitched in. Some local brewers have small hop fields and use a variation of the old traditional harvests, inviting friends to help harvest. This was taken at Moonlight Brewing’s small hop yard, with friends sitting around picking the hops by hand. The freshly picked hops will be added to the kettle later the same day, to create Moonlight’s fresh hop beer, Homegrown.

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My daughter Alice helping out in the hop yard.

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A close-up of a hop cone in the field. This one was in nearby Santa Rosa, at the small hop yard that Moonlight Brewing maintains.

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After processing, whole hops ready to be used in brewing. Here Russian River Brewery’s Vinnie Cilurzo about to add whole hops to a brew.

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After the harvest, a few stragglers left on the wire above. Planting will begin again in the spring, and the process will start all over again.

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