A few years ago, hops were a mystery ingredient. I had heard that they were in beer, but had no clue what they were, and especially, what they looked like. With newly inspired self-sufficiency in mind, I did some research and found out that they are vines that will happily grow over twenty feet tall, are harvested for their flowers that look like green spruce cones, and that grow beautifully where we are.
Beer is generally made from fermenting the sugars from malted (sprouted) and roasted barley, and this sweetness is balanced out with the bitterness of hops. On top of bitterness, they add a lot of delicate flavours based on the variety, and also have a preservative effect.
I found a supplier and ordered some rhizomes, or root cuttings, based on suggestions from Neil, a talented homebrewer I visited a couple years back. He suggested I order a few different varieties that will have give a beer a fuller flavour. A “bittering” hop, to add the bulk of the bittering balance, so I ordered Chinook and Zeus. And flavouring hops to add character to the beer–Mt. Hood and Cascade.
I’ve been watching the cones slowly develop and decided to harvest on Saturday. I enlisted the help of my visiting brother-in-law, Bill (pictured, and looking the part) to help me out.
I have the hops growing up sisal twine that is attached to a crude, ten-foot frame I made out of some old pipes. Commercial growers just snip the string at the top, letting the whole vine tumble down, and then harvest the cones at a manageable height. We decided not to snip the whole vine down since many of the cones still seemed young. We opted to haul out a step ladder and pick the best ones leaving the others to harvest later.
We picked about ten quarts of the paper-like and nearly weightless cones and I put them on our brand new dehydrator to preserve. It has a fan and thermostat for better control. The fan dries each layer evenly and in a fraction of the time our old one would have taken. The thermostat keeps it warm, but doesn’t ruin the delicately flavoured oils you need for brewing better beer.
We dried them in the garage at the farm, and it quickly filled with a sweet, piney aroma while we washed the sticky hop oils off of our hands.
Once dried, the previously nearly weightless hops are now, arguably, weightless.
We’ve got one of those foodsaver vacuum sealers on our shopping list, but haven’t picked one up yet. So I did my best sucking the air out of some ziploc freezer bags, and threw them in the deep freezer to preserve.
I’m not brewing this year, so I think I’m going to give these away… I’m just happy to be familiarizing myself with them.
Next year, I’m going to be much happier to familiarize myself with the end product. But I’m going to have to wait quite a while for that.