Hops! As homebrewers we love them. We love the smell of them when we open the package, we love the smell of them as we toss them into the kettle, we love the aroma and flavor we get from that fresh dry-hopped IPA we just kegged. You know what I mean.
Some of us even grow them in our backyard. I myself am an extremely amateur hops gardener—I don't think I've ever gotten more than a half a pound of hops out of my three plants. Most years I struggle with pests that I haven't had much luck in identifying, let alone countering. Thankfully my livelihood does not depend on me having a bountiful harvest of hops with excellent aroma and high alpha figures.
Recently, I got the chance to meet with some of the folks that do make their living growing, processing and selling hops. When Don Bryant, the president of Hopunion LLC, asked me if I'd be interested in speaking about homebrewing during their annual Hops & Brew School. Being a homebrewer (we love hops remember), I jumped at the opportunity.
I spent two days in August in the heart of hop country USA: Yakima, WA. In addition to seminars on the hops industry, hop growing and hop breeding, there were talks covering the growing and malting of barley, production of specialty malts, and brewing presentations covering bottle conditioning, brewing dark beers and brewing with fresh hops. Speakers included accomplished brewmasters such as Steve Dressler of Sierra Nevada Brewing Co, Jeff Bagby of Pizza Port and Jamie Floyd of Ninkasi Brewing Co.
The highlight of Hops & Brew School was a trip to the Loftus Ranches hop farm. There we got to see the hop harvest in action (on that particular day they were harvesting Simcoe®). It was a fascinating mix of hard labor in the hot sun and capital-intensive machinery that cut the bines, removed the hops from the bines, separated the hops from the remaining leaves and stems, dried the hops (you don't know hot until you've been in a hop kiln!) and finally compressed the hops into 100 lb bales.
The final stop on the tour was a hop field with 28 different established hop varieties, plus another 14 experimental varieties. We were free to wander, pick, rub, smell and compare all those glorious hop aromas. If it weren't so damned hot, it may have seemed like heaven.
Having been to Hops & Brew School, I feel much more in tune with the issues that hop farmers face. I am simply amazed that we are so fortunate to have so many different varieties of hops to choose from. Hops farmers face a myriad of different pest, soil and weather issues that could dramatically affect parts or their entire crop in a given year. New breeds generally take 11 years of development before they can be commercially grown, and potentially years more before they may gain traction within the brewing industry, if they are ever accepted at all.
While the mega brewers used to help fund the research of new hop breeds, that time and expense now falls primarily on the growers and brokers. Any new variety that a farmer plants will take two-to-three years before that land produces a full crop of hops. Different hop varieties produce different pounds per acre, different levels of alpha acid per acre (this is what the mega brewers are most interested in), have different levels of susceptibility to pests and diseases and have different storability traits. It's dizzying to think of all of the considerations hop farmers must take into account when planting their fields.
So, next time you throw a handful of our favorite beer seasoning into your kettle, give thanks to those hard-working hop farmers!