With Spring upon us, the hop fields of the Pacific Northwest are beginning their ascension up the lines strung out of over hundreds of thousands of acres of hop fields in Idaho, Washington, and Oregon. Did you know that Salmon River Brewerys Co-founding owner/brewer, Matt Hurlbutt has a direct family connection to the hop fields of Oregon’s famed Willamette valley? Matt’s sister Kelly, and brother in-law Monty are the owners and operators of Weston Bend Farms. The farm is named for the location, which is situated on the most westerly bend of the Willamette river. The Smith family has been farming hops in the Willamette valley for five generations. Salmon River Brewery procures hundreds of pounds of high quality Nugget, Mt. Hood, Centennial, and Willamette hop varieties from the Smiths, and their farm every fall. Enjoy the pictures below of the Weston Bend Farms operation, and some of the story behind Salmon River Brewery and Weston Bend Farms.
First a quick discussion on Hops, those wonderful flowers of the hop plant that brewers use to add flavor, aroma, balance and stability in beer. They are known by many as the bittering ingredient in beer. This is true, hops impart bitterness in beer. Depending on the amount, variety and the time that the brewer adds the hops to the brew kettle, the bitterness levels will be less or more. As you stare at those beer boards in your favorite brewery, you will notice next to the beer, I.B.U., or international bitterness units. Some very smart brewing scientists developed I.B.U. to help brewers with recipe formulation, to determine how much bitterness is in a beer. Sounds simple right? Well, it isn’t, as you will see as you delve into the science at this wikipedia link
As is described in the aforementioned wikipedia link, the perceived bitterness in a beer may be different depending on the malt, etc. balance in the beer. A 50 I.B.U. golden ale will seem more
bitter, then a 50 I.B.U chocolate stout, as the stout will likely have more malt sweetness, and chocolate flavors, that balances the bitterness of the hops. Another aspect of hops that I.B.U. does not address adequately, is hop aroma, and flavor. We see many people in our pub, who upon noticing a higher I.B.U. listed on a given beer immediately classify it as “too hoppy”, before even trying it. It may be more balanced then you think! We recommend people use I.B.U. as a starting point in classifying a beer in their minds, but remind them that malt balance, the type of yeast, the type of hops, the levels of carbonation, and other spices or herbs the brewers may be using, can balance the beer that shows a higher I.B.U., but may actually be perceived by them as less bitter than a style listed with a lower I.B.U. Wikipedia has a wonderful breakdown on all things hops at the following link
Just like all plants, hops at Weston Bend Farms begin their journey up, and out of the ground in the spring. In the picture above you will see some fresh hop shoots only days after they have poked through the ground. These shoots are actually wonderful pickled or pan fried! Hops can grow well over an inch a day, and as the hop bines (not vine) reach for the sun towards the tops of the trellis above, they wrap themselves around strategically placed lines, curling up in coordination with the Sun as it crosses the sky each day.
As the plants mature over the spring and summer, with water, Sun, and the careful eye, and skill of the farmers, empty fields are replaced with the thick, 20 foot tall sea of hop green, swaying in the afternoon winds. Blight, hail, too much heat, too much rain, rotting hop poles, big winds, malfunctioning equipment, are all issues that hop farmers such as Monty and Kelly must toil with. In the picture below you will see the Weston Bend Farms field picker working its way down a row during harvest. Harvest usually begins in late August, and can stretch into early October.
During harvest, the shifts are long, and days stretch into weeks before the end of harvest arrives. Though it is tough work, it is a labor of love. Monty Smith remarked that one of the most enjoyable aspects of his business is to see his staff, as many as 30, enjoying their job.
We asked the Smiths if there was a particular piece of machinery that is the most troublesome during any given hop season. Hop picker was the answer. It is an expensive, complicated piece of machinery, that halts the entire operation when problems arise. Once the hop bines are picked in the field, the clock starts to tick. The alpha (bitter) and beta (aroma) acids in the hop flowers start to break down quickly at high moisture contents, and warm temperatures, and this can create oxidation and other problems, which render those hops not suitable for market. Getting the hops to the drying rooms quickly is critical. In the picture below you will see the start point of the Weston Bend Farms hop picking machine, where the piles of hop bines are off loaded from the field, into the picker. Check out this INCREDIBLE video of a German hop picker in action!
After the hop flowers are separated from the bine in the picker, they are brought via conveyor belt to the drying rooms. Hops need to be dried to 8 to 10% moisture content, so as mentioned above, oxidation of the alpha and beta acids does not occur, and so when the hop flowers are bailed up they do not begin to compost, or spontaneous combustion takes place, before they get to the brewery or the pelletizing facility. In the picture below you will see where Weston Bend Farms spreads their hops into thin layers 4 inches deep. The surface they are resting on allows air to move through the entire surface of the hop flowers. On the floor below, large burners create the heat needed to bring down the moisture content in a controlled manner, without over-drying the hops which could ruin an entire run of hops destined for the brewery.
Once the hops are dried to the required specifications, they are moved via another conveyor, to the bailing room, pictured below. Giant piles of all different varieties of hops are spread out along the room, some 400 feet long. The aroma is SUPERB! Hop farmers and brewers alike delight at the sight. The farmer knows, after months of careful, hard work, and the frenzy of harvest, the hops simply need to be bailed up, and loaded on the trucks for market. The brewer is already on cloud nine due to the smell, and the visions of India Pale Ale, Ambers, and Golden ales dancing in their heads, with the anticipation that a well cared for, fresh crop of hops are on the way to the brewery!
Salmon River Brewery, and the Hurlbutt families unique connection to Weston Bend Farms, and the product they masterfully grow, which is such a critical, and fascinating aspect of the brewing industry, is something SRB celebrates. Matt Hurlbutt had the chance to spend over two weeks working the farm for the 2010 harvest. His passion is brewing, but what brewer would not want to go to the hop fields for harvest? The next chance we get, we will jump on it!