In our estate hop field, thousands of strings reach from the ground to 18-foot trellis tops. They hang with the slightest curve, like a person’s arched back during a morning yawn. When the hops wake up they start climbing that twine.
If you drive by our brewery now, you’ll see that our eight acres of hops are well rested; Cascade, Chinook, Citra and more are charging skyward, bright with color and promise. Our agriculture team will cater to their health leading up to the August/September harvest, although there’s more to the hops than their summer lushness.
After the 2012 harvest, just as we do each year, we planted a “cover crop”—mainly rye and vetch (a member of the legume family)—to pull nitrogen from the air into the soil, as well as to help those hop roots dig deep. Between fall and spring weeds will undoubtedly emerge. In early March this year, we began clearing wild plants with a combination of equipment, hands-on workers (who often don stylish caps), and a herd of hungry sheep conveniently owned by our gardener. It was also the time to spread organic fertilizer packed with nutrients; the likes of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium give hop health a boost.
Come April we begin “training” hops onto the trellis strings. Hop bines—unlike vines whose suction-like tendrils climb on their own—need some guidance so their hairs can slither upward. On each string we wrap two to three bines in a clockwise direction, which is how hop bines naturally curl.
Through spring and summer, our team combats what can commonly derail hop growth: weeds, weather and mites.
“I don’t know if you want to call [weather] your enemy,” said Lau Ackerman, our agriculture supervisor, “but it determines everything.”
A too-warm spring can confuse the crop, which is sensitive to day length and temperature. Hot, but short, spring days convince the plants that they’re actually beyond the longest days of summer, triggering the formation of hop cones. If that’s the case, Lau and his team trim back the affected hop rows so they can start anew. Heat is also a haven for mites, which can rapidly transform rich bines into pitiful brown noodles.
“[Mites] are the bane of my existence,” Lau said.
Overhead misters help deter the tiny arachnids by dropping the temperature and increasing the humidity in the hop field. Predatory insects also wage a microscopic war with the mites; certain spiders and even on-the-good-side mites help dial back the damage.
Mist, heroic bugs, a huge dose of hope—these are some of the tools of the organic hop farmer. Lau knows there are chemical treatments that would be more effective, but he believes in the virtue of organic.
“It should be a cleaner, better product in the end,” he said, noting too that the practices are simply better for the environment (think water runoff) and the employees who spend their days in the crop.
In a few short months, we’ll have a tractor out in the field, plucking the alpha acid-plump, aromatic hops. If all of the conditions play nice, our yield can reach upward of 10,000 pounds of wet hops. Lau would love to hit that number—and surely the brewers would, too—but at a recent concert in our Big Room, The Wailin’ Jennys shared a sentiment that’s helped Lau sleep at night: Worrying is like praying for bad things to happen.
Our optimism is as high as our trellises. Bring on the harvest.