How Hops are Harvested and Used in Brewing

How Hops are Harvested and Used in Brewing

It’s September, which means it’s our favorite time of year–hop harvest.  We’ve been farming hops at Loftus Ranches since 1932 and brewing beer at Bale Breaker since 2013. This year marks our family’s 88th consecutive hop harvest, so that’s given us plenty of time to refine our processes and learn to grow some of the best hops in the industry. Visiting the Yakima Valley this time of year, you’ll see luscious green hop plants blanketing the valley, but by this time in September, many empty hop fields already. We don’t like talking about the feeling when Field 41 is harvested; it’s a sad day. The usually verdant views we get to enjoy all summer long are suddenly gone, and we have to wait until next summer to begin to see those hop plants gain some height once again.

Hops are a unique agricultural crop: without beer, there really is no use for them, so a thriving beer industry is necessary for hops to stick around. They are in the same family as the cannabis plant, but rather than growing in bushes, they grow as a vine (technically a hop bine) vertically along twine supported by a trellis system.

We’ll get into this in more detail later, but for a quick overview, this is how hops are harvested: the bottomcutter tractor first rolls through the hop field to cut the base of the plant, then the hop truck follows, with the topcutter tractor right on its tail. As the topcutter pushes the hop truck through the field and cuts bines from the top of the trellis, the entire bine falls into the back of the truck. The hop truck then drives to the farm, where the bine is sent through machinery specifically engineered to strip hops from the bine and other leafy material. Once the hop cones have been separated, they are sent into the kiln for drying. Hops are harvested with about 75% moisture content, but their moisture content needs to be around 10% to prevent spoiling, so they are dried at high temperatures. After the kiln, hops are sent to the baling room, where they condition for 24 hours and then are compressed into 200 pound burlap-wrapped bales. Our family hop farm has been shipping hop bales to breweries around the world for four generations, so when we decided to take the opportunity to showcase this crop that our family knows and loves by brewing our own beer, we settled on the name Bale Breaker. It means that we are breaking our own hop bales open to highlight hops in what we believe is the best way.

How Hop Bines are Harvested From Trellises

Fortunately, we’ve named several of our classic beers after some of the farm equipment used to harvest hops, so this should make some sense if you’ve ever paused to take a look at our cans. The hop bines are tall and full, and at peak harvest really feel like a jungle when you walk through the hop rows. They are 18 feet tall, which is taller than a basketball hoop and tall enough to be their own story in a building.

First, the bottomcutter tractor crawls through the hop row, cutting the hop bines at the base. This is a quicker process than the other steps, and the bottomcutter usually sits and waits for the rest of the harvesting team to catch up. Next comes the hop truck, a big farm truck with an open back cargo area, and right behind it follows the topcutter at a speed of about 4 miles per hour. Once you see just how many acres of hops are in the Yakima Valley, 4 miles per hour seems maddeningly slow. It’s also why harvest on our farm operates around the clock, literally 24 hours a day, 7 days a week during the month of September. There is no time to waste, and with hops being such a fragile product, needing to be harvested at just the right time to showcase the best flavor and aroma for the variety, time is also a key ingredient in the harvest process.

While the hop truck and topcutter pair crawl along the hop row, the topcutter blades cut the hop bines from the top of the trellis. The bine, along with the twine that supported its growth all the way to the top, then falls into the open back of the hop truck, and the bines pile up until the hop truck is full and heads back to the picking and sorting machinery where the next part of the process begins.

A couple essential members of the harvesting team help to make sure the bines are nicely laid in the back of the hop truck. Weavers are members of the harvesting team that have one of the toughest jobs on the hop farm. Covered from head to toe so as not to get too scratched up from the prickly hop bines, even when it’s well into the 90s on a hot Yakima day, these laborers stand in the back of the hop truck while hop bines pile on top of them! They do so to make sure as many bines can fit into the truck as possible, and so that the hops can be easily unloaded when they arrive at the picking facility.

Getting Hops Off the Bine

Once hop bines are in the hop truck, the truck then drives back to the farm, or the picking facility, where the next important steps in hop harvesting take place. Hop trucks pile up waiting for their turn to be unloaded at the picking facility. The main stop is at the picking machine, where entire hop bines are hand-loaded one by one and sent through the machinery that separates the desired hop cones from the rest of the plant material. First, the hop cones and leaves are stripped off the bines. The bines are sent to compost, while the hops and leaves start their journey through a series of conveyors, called dribble belts, to sort the hops from the leaves. Hops are round and denser than leaves, so they roll down the series of belts, while the leaves stick to them and end up in the compost pile. Once the truck bed is empty and all the bines have been sent into the picker, the driver heads back out to the field to load up again.

After the hop cones have been separated, they are transported to the kiln by a conveyor belt. A two-story building, the kiln is a giant room with several divisions, all drying hop cones at different stages. On the top level, hops are laid out as far as the eye can see, and the lower level houses propane burners and giant fans that are fired on in order to dry the hops above. Hops are harvested with about 75% moisture content. In order to be packaged properly and to prevent spoiling, hops must reach a moisture level around 10%. The various divisions in the kiln dry the hops slowly, typically for 8-9 hours, then send them off to the baling room once the right moisture level has been reached.

Finally, in the baling room, huge piles of dried hops condition at room temperature for around 24 hours before being sent by more conveyors into the baler. The baler, along with the help of a talented crew, compresses the hops into 200 pound bricks. The team of four workers then hand sews two sheets of burlap around the hop bale. The bales wait in a cold room before being shipped on semi-trucks to the hop processing facility.

How Hops are Processed and Used for Brewing

Unless hops are going to be used for fresh hop beers (the season is upon us!), they are baled and sent to hop processing and distribution companies. We partner with Yakima Chief Hops to purchase the hops that we’ve selected and contracted from our hop farm each year.

It is important for brewers to contract for the hops they plan to brew with each year to ensure they get the quantities and varieties of hops they want. Again, hops really don’t have much of a use beyond beer, so without hop contracts, growers won’t know how much of what varieties to grow. Contracts ensure that the majority of hops grown by the farm will be used and brewers aren’t left without the hops needed for their beers.

At the hop processing facility, the burlap bales that came from the hop farm are sent through a machine called a bale breaker and processed in three different forms. The simplest form is essentially just repackaging the 200-pound bale into a smaller, easier to handle size, known as a mini bale.

The second form is most commonly used in brewing these days--hop pellets. They look like rabbit food and are just the compressed whole cone hops processed into a form that is more efficient for brewing. The aroma and flavor profiles of the hops remain consistent, so there is no loss in quality in this process. Hop pellets are more efficient than whole cone hops and result in more finished beer yielded per batch.

Finally, the third form processed hops can take is a kind of honey-like goop, which is the most efficient way to process hops that has been invented. Hop extract is what it’s called, and the machinery used to extract hops is native to Yakima. There are only three hop extractors in the world, and they all live in the Yakima Valley.

Thanks for taking the time to learn about why we are so proud to come from a hop farming family and from the heart of hop country. We know and love hops more than any other brewery in the world. We hope that you can sense the pride and joy we find in this labor of love. Cheers!

Posted September 20, 2019

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