At Agrarian Ales Brewing Company, we often tout the fact that we grow on our farm all of the hops we use in our beers. At our annual Hop Harvest Festival, we invite the public to help us harvest our entire hop crop while enjoying live music and celebrating the bounty of farm life. We relish in the connection built when the community lends a hand in harvesting the future of Agrarian beer. Their sticky, pungent fingers lend a reality to our hyperlocal mindset.
Many people wonder how we enable our annual harvest to last throughout the brewing year, as we are brewing year-round. So we decided to offer a glimpse at our process of preserving our hops from the moment we determine they are perfectly ripe until they get dropped into one of our delicious beers.
As mentioned above, the process starts with our Hop Harvest Festival that typically spans two weekends in late August and early September. We snip down the hop bines (hop "vines" are called bines!) and pluck every single hop cone by hand. Our preference of leaving mechanization out of the process truly defines who we are and what we do. First of all, the method of hand harvesting brings back the lost historical experience of connecting to one of the more delightful ingredients of beer. Also, the hand harvest provides an incredible level of quality control, with hundreds of individuals selecting out everything from stems and debris to the tiniest of leaves. What results is only the most beautiful, vibrant hop cones imaginable.
We determine the peak ripeness of our hop cones through a hands on analysis of aroma and appearance. As harvest nears, a select few of us can be seen daily somewhere in the hop yards - plucking cones, rubbing them between our hands, and wafting the pungent hop goodness into our noses. Hop aromatics increase as essential oil content develops, and our preference is to leave the hop cones on the bine as long as possible to maximize this oil content. We want our hops to smell outstanding so that we can get that in the glass.
Once harvested, it’s important to get the hops in storage as quickly and efficiently as possible since hop aroma and bitterness will deteriorate quickly when exposed to oxygen.
After all of the season’s hops are harvested, it’s time to dry them. For this, we use one of the buildings on our property that we have converted into a drying room, historically referred to as a hop oast.
Our drying facility is comprised of many screened trays measuring 8 feet by 2 feet and around 4 inches deep. Hops are placed in these trays and airflow is directed throughout the facility to try to achieve a specific moisture content within the hops (around 6% to 8%). The trays are rotated around the room and hand stirred to ensure that they dry evenly.
We do not apply any indirect heat during the drying process to retail as much aromatic quality as possible. To determine if the hops are done drying we look at the central stem of the cone, known as the strig, and see if it breaks cleanly. Once that has happened, it’s time to bale the hops.
To get our hops ready for storage, we compress them into 5 pound bales. This bale size tends to average out well for use in our beer batch size. As a result, we rarely have partially used open bags of hops getting stale in the cooler. Compare this to the industry standard of 200 pound bales that many breweries must gradually use up over potentially a period of several months.
Our hop baler is a device that we built in our wood shop. This all-wood baler is basically a plunger attached to a large lever arm - imagine an over-sized garlic press. Hops are placed in a hopper that then get packed into the baler chute. Once the bale is compressed it is bound in a piece of fabric to hold its shape.
Next, it’s time to place the hop bale into a large Mylar bag that we vacuum seal to remove all the oxygen. Mylar keeps the oxygen out and all the beautiful hop aromatics in.
Once properly sealing and labeled, we place the hop bales in cold storage where they await their destiny of delighting our patrons in the next unique batch of beer.
We take great pride in the hops that we grow. You can come check out our hops for yourself by visiting our brewpub in Eugene. You can also join us each year for our annual Hop Harvest Festival - it's open to any and all. Make sure to check back in with our Events page in the summer to see when harvest is it’s coming up next.