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Posts Tagged ‘drying’

This year’s hop harvest may have seemed a lot of fiddly work at the time and a hot slog on a sunny September weekend, but it proved well worth it in the end. And at an average price to homebrewers of around a fiver per 100g for new crop hops this year, ‘growing yer own’ is fast becoming an essential boost for those Winter milds, poters and stouts.

The hops had been drying in the makeshift ‘loft oast’ for around ten days when we ventured up to retrieve them. It took a little while as its best to handle fresh hops as delicately as possible in order to retain as much lupulin as possible. All three varieties were nice and dry and just needed packing in bags for storage. I say just….

Now, packing hops is a massive pain in the backside. We don’t have a vacuum sealer and perhaps one of those might be a good idea next year, but even so. Our method is to cram hops into zip lock bags so tightly that there is very little air inside. The bags we use are heavy duty 10″ by 7″ jobs bought in bulk from eBay a while back. If you work and work at it, you can get 100g inside each one, dry weight after taking the bag itself into account. I can’t lie, it’s not easy, but it is very effective and each big is literally ram-packed.

Anyway, check out our efforts below. It took a while, and our fingers were pretty stained and bitter for a day or two afterwards, but it was quite a haul for just three small plants. We now have 400g WGV, 300g Fuggles and 133g Bramling Cross from the 2009 harvest. Not bad at all and perfect for seasonal milds and that all important batch of Christmas Dry Stout!

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A short while ago I wrote a post documenting our efforts at growing hops in the Boxshed back garden, and promised an update detailing our amateurish methods of harvesting, processing and storing our yield. There’s nothing all that complex to share really, but there are a few photos you might find interesting, and if you have any inclination at all to plant a few hop varieties this winter or spring, at least you’ll be able to see that harvests, however modest, are at least possible in your first year.

We first started getting edgey about our hops around mid-September. The cones had been bright springy and green for a few weeks and were busy putting on bulk and length. Picking a cone at random and peeling back the leaves nearest the cone stem revealed plenty of crocus yellow powder. This lupulin is the resinous pollen-like stuff that imbibes hops with their bittering and aromatic qualities. Throughout the harvesting and drying process its important to realise that too much rough treatment of the cones will mechanically remove much of this lupulin, which obviously isn’t desirable.

Pinpointing the perfect time to pick your hops isn’t always easy, but here are a few general rules: wait until the cones lose their springiness and become slightly papery; harvest before or immediately when any browning starts to occur; choose a nice dry day, preferable following a dry period of days.

Sadly it began raining constantly in our part of the world just when hops looked ready to pick. We waited a couple of days to see if things brightened up, but when the wild hops nearby began going brown we knew we couldn’t wait any longer for our own plants, and so braved the drizzle and picked them wet. Picking hops takes a lot longer than you might imagine and certainly isn’t a quick job. We began by using scissors and precision, but were very soon grabbing and ripping cones off the bines with care but also speed. The interwoven bines hide a good many cones and an ever-useful fermenting bucket can quickly fill up. By the time we had stripped the WGV plant we had managed to get over a kilo, or 15L or so, of great looking green hop cones, ready for drying. The Fuggles, harvested a few days later, produced slightly less, but still around a kilo. By the time we had stripped our own crop, the enormous mass of wild hedgerow hops I had been watching all summer were perishing, and the rain had showed no signs of relenting.

The next stage is of course drying. Leave wet or fresh hops lying around too long off the bine – especially in plastic containers – and mould will inevitably set in. To preserve green hops as efficiently as possible, it is essential to dry ’em and freeze ’em. Traditionally and commercially, hop harvests are taken to purpose-built oast houses to be dried and processed. This is what Wikipedia has to say about oast houses:

“They are farm buildings used for drying hops in preparation for the brewing process. They consist of two or three storeys on which the hops were spread out to be dried by hot air from a wood or charcoal-fired kiln at the bottom. The drying floors were thin and perforated to permit the heat to pass through and it escaped through a cowl in the roof which turned with the wind. The freshly picked hops from the fields were raked in to dry and then raked out to cool before being bagged up and sent to the brewery.”

Home brew aficionados such as Dave Line or Randy Mosher can offer guidance for creating a mini-oast out of a tea-chest, wire mesh and perhaps a hair dryer or two. You could even invest in a tiered fruit dehydrator. But we decided to use newspaper pockets and some good old-fashioned airing in the loft. Large flat pillow shaped pockets with sides that contacted the maximum possible number of cones may have worked better, but we simply used cone shaped packages which we then filled loosely with hops and stacked in an airing cupboard. After a few days we took all of these up to the loft and lay out all the semi-dry hops evenly on porous cardboard box sheets where they could benefit from the heat of the house below and some decent airing.

At this point, there’s a chance you might start to feel like a bit of a drugs baron. Hops are members of the cannabis family, and after a harvest your home will ooze hoppiness. After a week’s further drying both our hop crops had reduced in weight by around a quarter to a fifth, but still three-quarter filled an FV bucket each. For storage it is ideal to press the hops as compact as possible and then keep them cool. Oast houses use a press to cram and stitch huge volumes of dried hops into large hop pockets, or sacks. Home or craft brewers tend to favour vacuum packing. For such a small harvest we simply bought some extra strong self sealing bags and meticulously rammed them full to bursting with our hops. We managed to press each bucket of hops into two plastic bags with some difficulty, with each of the resulting four bags weighing in at…  …just 110g a piece!

A lot of effort for less than half a kilo of dried hops you might think, but they are serving us a few brews with enormous satisfaction. We’ve already made a mild with the Fuggles and a stout with the WGV, and the remaining hops are wonderfully fresh and green in the freezer. Also of course, this year was somewhat of a bonus year, as we didn’t really expect a harvest until Autumn 2009.

Hop growing is well and truly over for another season. The ugly stripped bines have been ripped down, cut off at ground level and composted. The stem stumps have been buried in organic compost for the winter, and we don’t expect to see buds emerging until the warmth of Spring. As soon as we do, we’ll be sure to post photos.

 

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