Over the past few years we'd been invited on various trips during the hop harvest, something we were eager to experience, but the timing never ended up working out. This year the stars aligned and we were able to take advantage of the opportunity, hopping into a van driven by Pyramid/Portland Brewing brand manager Bruce Kehe last week. Along with other members of the Portland beer community we made our way to Silverton and back, taking in the harvest of Centennial hops at Goschie Farms.
When we arrived owner Gayle Goschie informed us that the harvest had begun earlier in the morning (in fact we ran into 54 40's Bolt on our way in, his van already loaded up with a batch of fresh hops). Making our way over to one of the farm's buildings we were greeted with a view of the hop bines being lifted out of the harvesting trucks and attached to the mechanical system. The noise level made conversation impossible but there was no need to speak, only to breathe in the dizzying aroma of fresh hops and watch in fascination as the bines made their way through the processing machinery.
Mechanical harvesting of hops began in the 1940's, a system that is based on hops being round and leaves/stems being flat. Once stripped off, all of the material makes its way through a series of belts that separates the usable hop cones from the discarded material. The final set of belts, called dribble belts, are where the hops fall/roll/dribble down for collection while the leaves and stems are carried on. Since hops vary not only in the profiles they impart to beer, but also in overall shape, there is some variation in the efficiency in which the mechanical system pulls them off the bines. Regardless of variety, non-hop cone material making it through with the hop cones is less than 1%, a dramatic decrease from the 12% that was common when hand harvesting was the norm.
Once the hop cones have been isolated it's time for them to head to the drying house. Entering at nearly 80% moisture, the hops are spread out to a depth of 24 inches where 130 degree heat is pumped through, drying them to around 8% over the course of about seven hours. This part of the process has remained largely the same over the last 100 years even though computers assist in monitoring kiln operations and growers have instruments to help gauge when the hops are dry. Ultimately however, Gayle still uses the age-old process of rubbing the cones between her fingers to judge dryness, just as her father and grandfather did.
The dried, yet still warm, hops are then moved to a cooling room for about 12 hours. During that time gentle, non-heated air is blown through the mountain of hops before they are compressed into 200lb bales. Mini/mobile "sewing machines" are used to seal the bags around the bales, with the final stitches on the ends being done by hand. At Goschie it is tradition that at the end of the hop harvest, when the last hop bale has been made, Gayle herself sews the final bag shut.
This year the weather has been nearly perfect for hops, meaning that soon, especially the fresh hops that went straight from the dribble belts into large bags picked up by brewers like Pyramid/Portland Brewing head brewer Ryan Pappe, will be make an appearance in our glasses as fresh hop beers begin to hit taps around town. The rest, in dried form, will make their way from Goschie and other hop farms to supply brewers throughout the coming year.