A field guide to hops. Click through the following slides for a better understanding of how hops are grown, harvested, and processed for brewing.
Humulus Lupulus (hops) are the flowering cone of a perennial climbing vine that are primarily used in the beer brewing process. Hops have been used in brewing since the early days to ward off spoilage from wild bacteria and bring balance to sweet malts. Hops also help with head retention, act as a natural filtering agent, and impart unique flavors and aromas, including (but certainly not limited to!) the bitterness in beer.
The Yakima Valley has proven to be the an ideal combination of the right climate, day length, soil, and access to irrigation systems for hop growing, which is why 75% of the nation's hops are grown here!
Around the Yakima Valley, the annual hop harvest generally starts towards the end of August and lasts throughout most of September. Most picking facilities run 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for close to 30 days.
No, hops are a perennial climbing vine that remains dormant underground throughout the fall and winter. The plant begins to grow from the ground each spring as the weather warms.
The hop cone, which forms on the vine in late summer, contains various oils and alpha acids that are essential for the flavor and aroma in beer, especially the hop-forward beers that Bale Breaker brews. Peel open a fully-formed hop cone to check out the sticky yellow lupulin glands inside!
Not anymore! The hop vines are first cut close to the ground (by a tractor called a bottom cutter). Then, a hop truck is pushed though the row by a tractor called a top cutter, which cuts the top of the vine from the trellis. The entire vine is transported back to the picking machine in the back of the hop truck.
Each vine is hand-loaded (upside-down!) into the picking machine. The picking machine on our farm was manufactured by Dauenhauer and has been in operation since the 1950's!
After the plant material is stripped from the vine, a series of belts and sorting mechanisms effectively separate the hop cones from the other plant material. A conveyor belt then transports the cones from the picking machine over to the kiln.
At harvest time, hops contain roughly 75% moisture. If stored with that amount of moisture throughout the year, they would spoil. Hops are dried in a hop kiln to an ideal moisture content of about 9-10%, allowing them to be stored and brewed with throughout the year.
After the hops are dry and cool, they are compressed into 200 pound, burlap-wrapped bales. Truckloads of bales are delivered to warehouses at hop processing companies around the region, where they will be packed into smaller bales of raw hops or processed into pellet or extract form. These hop processing companies act as the middle-man between the farmer and brewer.