September marks the beginning of the new school year, and also the graduation of freshly harvested hops into popular fresh-hopped beers.
The craft beer community in British Columbia is ravenous for these beers. While most beers are traditionally brewed with dried hops, some breweries will prepare a beer during the late-summer hop harvest that involves the addition of fresh hops (also known as wet hops).
It can be a tricky process for brewers as flavour extraction from fresh hops isn’t as predictable as with dried hops, and you need more fresh hops than dried to get an equivalent impact in your beer.
It’s also a time-sensitive process; there is a relatively small window of time — a few days — when the hops can be harvested. Once harvested, they have to be added to the brew within approximately 24-48 hours.
However, the results can be noticeably different from beers brewed with dried hops and it’s a great way to celebrate the re-established connection between farming and brewing in the province.
Hop farming was plentiful in BC through much of the 20th century before, essentially, ceasing to exist as international competition forced farmers out of business. However, the rise of craft beer has spurred the return of hop farming; the British Columbia Hop Growers Association has stated that there are now around 30 hop growers in the province.
One such farm is Cedar Valley Hop Yards, which produces a variety of hops on 10 acres of land, 12 kilometres south of Nanaimo. I went there to meet up with Harley Smith (brewmaster) and Peter Kis-Toth (head of quality control) from Nanaimo’s Longwood Brewery.
It’s 8 a.m. — to my surprise, the time Harley usually starts his brewing days.
The upper skies are sullen grey and newly smoke-filled from another series of far-off wildfires, but it has rendered the day cool and comfortable: perfect temperatures for a harvest.
The hops are ready to be collected for Longwood’s 40KM ISA—a beer that contains ingredients all sourced 40 km or less from the brewery.
We’re greeted by a waddling pack of farm dogs, followed by sweet and salty farm owners Kevin and Debbie Lamson. They were foresters by trade, but in 2011 transitioned their property into a hop farm to serve commercial and home brewers on Vancouver Island.
There are more than a dozen types of hops here, but Debbie directs us to rows of Willamette hops. Harley likes them because they grow quickly in this climate and, he admits, he loves the flavour. (He adds that all of the Longwood Brewery beers use hops from this farm.)
We’re given a couple of well loved serrated knives and we line up at the start of a row of hop bines, which are surprisingly thick. They arch and curl up ropes tied to steel wires, trellising six metres in the air. (Apparently, the difference between bines and vines is that bines curl while vines use tendrils or suckers to grow; Debbie’s opinion is that the word was changed because the wine industry didn’t like beer folk using the word “vine.”)
It becomes clear that we aren’t picking the cones by hand, but we’ll be slashing all of the hop bines at waist-height.
The crew gets hacking and chatting. Peter — harvesting hops for the first time — soon wishes aloud that he wore a long-sleeved shirt, as the bines are surprisingly abrasive. Debbie talks about other Island breweries — White Sails, Lighthouse — who picked up hop orders recently from the farm.
Once the bines are loose and hanging around, I wonder: How do we get them down?
We need more machinery and a bigger crew. We join Kevin, his oldest son Ray, and farm worker Ali Bowater at their tractor. Kevin is the driver. Ray, Peter, and I climb into a metal lift and are given the job to cut the ropes from the top wires. Harley and Ali ride ahead of us in a trailer, collecting the ropes and bines as they fall.
We crawl along between rows of bines, but the sheer amount of them keep Ray and Peter slicing away at a quick tempo. The best-looking hops are a rich gentle green, bordering on fluorescence. The high steel wires are solid like a ski-lift and clamped down to each other cross-ways as well down the rows. The security is needed because when the hops get that high, Ray says, they are basically a sail when a strong wind visits.
When the trailer is full, Kevin drives us over to their new warehouse. The hive of the building is a behemoth green machine full of chains, vacuums, and blades that Harley affectionately calls “The Mangler”: a Wolf 140 hop picker.
Kevin fires it up; it sounds like an airplane engine. Instructions now have to be shouted: Peter feeds the bines into one side of the machine — ropes and all — and the Mangler separates the stalks, leaves, and cones.
It’s not 100-per-cent perfect — some leaves get through, so Harley and Ali dutifully pick out those rogues from the bounty of hop cones flying up and over the final conveyor belt — but it’s amazingly efficient.
As I admire the work of the Mangler, Harley looks up at me from the conveyor belt and shouts, “You can’t get away from progress,” before dropping a hint that I should help with the leaves. We begin channeling Bob and Doug McKenzie and their hunt for mice in bottles.
You may have noticed that I haven’t mentioned the smell of the hops yet. Outside, there wasn’t much. But as the bines go through the mangler and the cones fly out, the aroma of Willamette finally swamps us. Now, we’re really excited for this beer to happen.
Bins of hops are weighed and we reach 80 pounds (36 kilograms). The Mangler takes a nap, the van is loaded, and handshakes and hugs are exchanged. It’s 11 a.m.
We get back to the brewery and Harley tells us that the first thing we have to do is blanche the hops with hot water. Why?
“Birds sit on those ropes and wires all year long. Guess what they do?”
Not wanting bird feces, spider mites, or undesirable bacteria or yeast on the hops, Harley hand-tosses the full-cone hops into a small tank (nicknamed the “Minion” tank) and hot water is pumped in.
This stew doesn’t sit for long; they don’t want to lose flavour. As the hot water is pumped out, Peter grabs a glass and collects some of this wastewater before raising it to his lips. “Brewers. We drink anything,” he says. Succumbing to peer pressure, I also down a sip; it looks like miso soup and tastes like oily sencha, but the aroma is incredible.
The final act for the day is to get beer into the tank to get the fresh hops hopping. It’s nearing 12:30 p.m. Harley shares his expectation that the 40KM ISA should be done in about two weeks.
While the tank fills, Harley expresses admiration for the fresh hop harvest — one of his favourite times of the brewing year.
“It’s the best. We get to watch the hops sprout, grow up over the year, and be a part of the harvest. It’s just great to partake in the whole operation.”
When his uber-local fresh hop beer — part of BC’s popular fresh hop beer lineup — is done, glasses will be raised to celebrate those fresh flavours and the continued growth of BC’s farmer-brewer relationships. As craft beer drinkers in this province, we couldn’t be luckier.
Longwood Brewery’s 40KM ISA will be available at select liquor stores as well as the Longwood Brewery (2046 Boxwood Rd., Nanaimo) by the end of September. Longwood, along with many of BC’s top breweries, will be serving fresh-hopped beers at the 2017 BC Hop Fest in Abbotsford on Saturday, Sept. 30.
The Cedar Valley Hop Yards is hosting an open house on Sept. 16, 2017. For more information, visit cedarvalleyhops.com.