The day(s) have finally arrived…time to harvest these bad boys.
The harvest this year took place over three days; August 30-31 and September 2. This happened for a couple of reasons. First the availability of our volunteer farmhand workforce. As we’re still operating on extremely tight margins, we relied on the kindness and generosity of some very good friends (Jason Lang, Joe Schroeder, George and Sylvia Young) and our immediate family members (Mom, Dad, brothers David, Devin and Mike) to assist with the harvest. Second, we needed to harvest the two varieties of hops…and get them dried…on slightly different schedules.
Our harvest routine was as such: Jason and I would drive up to the field in our Farm’s luxury tractor (golf cart) and snip the hops bines, pile them in the trailer and bring them down for all of us to work on. Thankfully we had the covered porch of the barn to keep us out of the heat (and some light rain) and it allowed us to stretch the picnic tables end to end to accommodate the 20′ length of the bines. A few of us would sit on one side, a few on the other side and we’d pick and pick and pick some more. We did manage to exhaust quite a few bottles of our stellar hometown brewery, Straubs, and get some good eating in as well. Jason took time off from his job to help which was amazing and my family took huge chunks of time out of their personal schedules to assist. It couldn’t have happened without everyone’s help!
We did the Cascades the first day and got those in the oast bins my father-in-law Mike Engel generously designed and built for us. He charged us only for the parts which in and of itself is incredible as he spent 40-50 hours designing this one-of-kind oast and building it all on his own. When the time comes, I’ll have more details on the oast (what dries the hops down to the proper moisture content before packing). Although he wasn’t able to complete the main unit, the drawers were complete and we placed the hops in there to dry overnight in the dry heat of the barn attic with fans here, there and everywhere.
The following day we did the Nugget variety. The hops needed to be separately dried and packaged as each has it’s own bittering and aroma qualities unique from one another. The stellar Brewmaster at Straubs, Vince Assetta, knows specifically which brews he wants to use each variety with and in what quantities. This harvest, our volume won’t be enough for a production run, even of a smaller seasonal variety, but it will allow him to produce quantities large enough for testing and sampling at a wide variety of Straubs’ clients in the Commonwealth. However when the expanded hopyard comes online in 2016 and beyond, then we’re looking at volumes to support one or possibly two seasonal varieties produced with our hops and barley.
The final day, I got up around 5am and started the process to vacuum pack, label and refrigerate the hops. I can laugh about it now, but that day I found out my Dad made a trip up to the barn about 3am as I had the lights on in the attic. He assumed I was up there working already and he came up to help. Sadly the lights were on to assist in the drying process for the hops in the bins. He was right back up with me about 6am as we worked side by side packing the hops into the vacuum bags (this was also completely new for us this year!), letting the sealer do it’s thing, then weighing the batch, labeling and recording it. Mom and Jenn joined us an hour or so thereafter…again another team effort par excellence!
Appropriately, we then placed the bagged hops into a few Straub Beer boxes…not sure why we’d have so many around 😉 … and refrigerated them. A few days later, the hops were picked up at the Farm and delivered to Vince for him to use as needed. The vacuum sealing/refrigeration would allow for the hops to keep for months until they were ready to be used in a brew. Last year we delivered our hops “fresh” off the bine so they had to be used within an immediate period of time. My Dad and I had them picked by 9am, they were at the Brewery by 10am and they were in the boil by 10:30am.
In 2016 and beyond, with Mike Engel’s kick-arse oast drying hops in a matter of 6-8 (not days!), hopefully a mechanized hops harvester in place and possibly even pelletization, we’ll be looking at entirely new ballgame!