There's no arguing that we're all a bit hop mad these days. We're in the midst of a hops arms race, with brewers cramming in as many hops as their tanks can handle, making bigger and bolder aromatics with each turn, collectively moving the needle on the population's hop threshold. The savvy consumer can even ID the superstar hops such as Citra and Mosaic when they pop up in a new brand. It's a shame then that more aren't aware of just how agricultural hops are.
"Hops are to beer what grapes are to wine" - Jim Koch
Jim's the founder and president of the Boston Beer Company that makes the ubiquitous Samuel Adams line of beers, so he knows what he's talking about when it comes to beer. I have a nit to pick with that quote, though.
You don't really ferment hops. Grain provides the sugar and much of the flavor and mouthfeel contributions in a beer. That quote undersells the importance of grain in beer, although I'm sure Jim didn't intend to do that. Hops are more like a spice or herb you add to a dish. I think what he was getting at with that quote is that hops are an agricultural product - and come with their own unique flavor characteristics based on their breed, soil conditions, weather, etc - in short, they have terroir.
I tried to grow hops once. I say try, because I failed. Everything I had read online and in books said that in the right climate, they'll grow without any intervention and in fact, they're difficult to kill off. Iowa is a good climate for them so I guess I'll blame the soil in my yard or just bad luck on why they died. There were no flowers that first year - as
expected - a smallish crop on year two, an even smaller crop in year three, and they didn't even come out of the ground for year four. That picture above is one of the bines in year two.
Thankfully, there are Iowans much more skilled at growing hops than I am. One of them invited me to a harvest day celebration back in late August. Buck Creek Hops grows some of their own hops but also sources from other farmers across the state and processes them at their facility outside of Solon. I've jealously listened to other pro brewers at big breweries flying out to Yakima Valley in Washington to do "hops selection" - where they rub hop cones and pick out individual lots to later use in their brews. I imagine Solon is about as close to Yakima Valley as I'll get - for a while at least - so I definitely wasn't going to miss this.
I pulled off the interstate, onto a highway, through a small town, and then onto a gravel road, surrounded by corn and soybean fields, just like the landscape I grew up in, except I never saw hop fields as a kid. I pulled into an ordinary looking farm alongside a big machine shed and parked. A dog ran up to greet me with his tail wagging. The smell of hops wafted out of the machine shed so I headed in. An enormous pile of hop bines were on the floor in the center of the building. A man was loading them into an even bigger machine that noisily ingested them and sprayed out hop cones on the back end. I chatted with some other Iowan brewers as we all watched hypnotically as hop bines were tossed into the machine and came out the other end. Eventually, a truck came in and dumped out a massive pile of hop bines, more than doubling the size of the existing pile.
The smell. Oh man, it was intense. It smelled like hops, but much more pungent, and in the almost three hours I was there, I never did get acclimated to the smell. You could see hop dust in the air. We joked that you could hold out a beer glass and just dry hop that way. It was wonderful.
We did get to rub a couple hop cones. You take a hop cone/flower, smash it between the palms of your hands and rub them together. You'll get a sticky, yellow powder and release those aroma compounds. Those who spend enough time around hops can ID which breed they are and can even pick out differences between farms and harvest years. I picked out the dank, piney, and resinous Chinook characteristics any west coast IPA fan is fond of.
After running through the machine, the hop cones hang out in giant bins on the floor until they've dried out to the desired humidity level. I somehow resisted the urge to jump into the bins and swim around, Scrooge McDuck style. A device that looks a bit like a metal detector was inserted into various points in the bin to take the readings and see if the hops are ready to go yet. They need at least 24 hours to dry so we wouldn't get to see the hops being fed into the machine finish up, but thankfully, we could see the next step with hops that were previously harvested.
A big tube was dipped into the bin, which started vacuuming up the cones and sending them into the hopper on top of another machine. That machine compressed the cones into pellet form, which was then spit out onto a conveyor belt and then transferred into a storage bin.
We were handed some of the hops and they were quite hot to the touch and smelled, as you can guess, wonderful.
So wonderful in fact, that I asked if I could buy some of these exact hops. They were Crystal hops, which I hadn't used in years. I forgot how much I loved them. They have this citrus candy character about them you just can't quite get from other varieties. The pellets still needed some time to rest before they could be packaged and sold, but I was able to reserve some. I used them a couple weeks later in the Iowaska saison (which as of this writing, hasn't been released yet, but it is delicious! Those hops really pop).
I appreciate Buck Creek for inviting me to be a part of this wonderful agricultural process. We're not big enough to get flown out to Yakima, but a short drive up the interstate yielded just as good of results.