Hey ya’ll, it’s time for another guest post! This was written by my Portland-area friend, Erin Quigley. She was lucky enough to harvest her landlords hops this fall and wrote up a ditty on the process. Good information to have! Thanks Erin!
Recently I had the unexpected opportunity to harvest hops from the vines that run rampant in my landlord’s yard. This was both awesome (because I’m an occasional homebrewer and I’d been eyeing the hops all summer) and totally ridiculous (because I had no idea what to do). Somehow, with the help of a few dedicated, fermentation-inspired co-conspirators, the hops made it from vine to brew-ready in just about a week. Read on for a primer on seat-of-your-pants homegrown hops harvesting!
Step 1: The Harvest
First things first—I needed to get all those hops off of the vines and into my car (so to speak). The plants were growing over an archway, up a drainpipe and, most challengingly, around a two-story metal post that held up the neighborhood washlines. I scaled the post with a sketchy combination of ladders and rope, and used pruners to lop off large sections of vine. Always wear your helmet, folks.
As I clipped the vines, two friends collected the clippings, picked off the fruit, and sorted the green, ready-to-go hops from the brown, past-peak hops. A good hop is still fairly green, although I figured that a little bit of brown around the edges was OK if the hop looked in good condition overall. A good hop will also make a sound like crinkling paper when you pinch it between your fingers. Hops that are too old generally just squelch when you do this, while hops that are too young are harder to squeeze and aren’t dry enough to make the crinkling noise. It’s tempting to harvest hops too early—they’re a much more vibrant green before they’re ready—but try to hold back!
So after a few hours of steady clipping, sorting and eating pie, we filled a kitchen-sized bag with hops that seemed fresh enough for brewing. My two friends headed back to work, and I was on my own to figure out the next stage of the project.
Step 2: Drying the Hops
Once the hops were harvested and sorted, they had to be dried for storage. Speed was important, since I didn’t want the hops (many already a bit too brown) to start wilting in the bag. I made an emergency run to the hardware store and brought home four concrete bricks, a box fan, a roll of wire mesh (the kind you would use for window screens) and a tarp. After several failed designs and extensive input from house guests, roommates and significant others, we managed to fold the wire mesh into a rectangular container. Then we put the container on top of a wooden frame (actually, a small bookshelf turned on its side) which we elevated off the ground with the concrete bricks and set the whole contraption on the tarp. The fan was positioned so that it was blowing over the hops and—voila—instant drying rack!
And then there was nothing to do but wait. I kept the fan running over the hops consistently, moving it around every 12 hours or so to reach all sides of the container. Towards the end of the drying session I discovered that I could lay the fan horizontally on the concrete blocks so that it blew straight up at the hops from underneath, which seemed pretty efficient, and I realized I probably should have done that from the beginning.
Fair Warning: Hops smell a lot like hops. Over the course of the project the aroma of hops in the house got pretty intense. Eventually we didn’t notice it anymore, but depending on how much you like hops, you may want to figure out how to do this outside. As it was, the tarp really helped keep hop bits and pollen out of the carpet. The intense smell dissipates as the hops dry, so if you hang in there it’ll probably go away.
And as the hops dried, not only did the smell disappear, but they lost an incredible amount of weight. Eventually I had to be careful not to crank the fan too high, or the light, dry hops would scatter across the room. More experienced hops harvesters apparently weigh the hops before and after drying, to make sure all the moisture is gone, but I didn’t try anything so professional. After about three days, the hops felt light and dry enough in my hands that I decided they were ready for storage.
Step 3: Packing and Storing
At this point I could have brewed with some of the hops right away. But I’d already neglected so much “real” work for the harvest that starting up a new batch of homebrew didn’t seem like a reasonable decision. So the hops needed to be put into storage, and the hunt for a vacuum sealer was on! Anyone who’s visited a brew supply store has probably noticed that hops keep best in the freezer, and they also need to be sealed in an airtight container to make sure they don’t absorb any new moisture. Light-duty vacuum sealers are available at most kitchen stores (Maine readers—I hear that Mardens sells them for cheap), but I didn’t want to shell out for a one-time project. So, after messing around with sucking the air out of plastic bags with a straw (didn’t work) and putting the hops in mason jars (not airtight enough), I was at a bit of a loss.
Fortunately, disaster was averted when my significant other, always a problem-solver, whisked the hops off to a neighborhood market where they use a vacuum sealer to package meats and produce. It wasn’t long before I had five vacuum-sealed bags of hops, each weighing about 5 ounces. I wouldn’t recommend packing hops in such large amounts, generally—1 oz packages are probably better for most beer recipes. But, when the local market is doing you a favor, beggars can’t be choosers.
And so, the vacuum-sealed hops finally made their way into the freezer, dated and ready to use any time. It was amazing, and slightly depressing, to watch an entire trash bag full of hops get packed into just a few tiny airtight containers! But now the fun part is just beginning. I still have to figure out what variety these little guys are, and what flavor they’ll impart on a batch of beer. I’m thinking I’ll start with a fairly generic recipe, to get a good idea of the hops’ flavor. Then I can begin experimenting with what recipes might best highlight that particular variety.
And then, of course, it’s time for the really fun part—sharing the beer with my landlord and all the friends who gave their time and energy to be part of the Great Hops Harvest of 2012. That’s a pretty good excuse for a party!
Have you ever brewed with your own hops? What kind did you grow and how did it go?