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A free September weekend following several days of dry, windy weather billowing through the Boxshed garden, seemed as good a time as any to bring in this year’s hop harvest.

We finally got stuck in at lunchtime on Saturday, and were still at it on Sunday afternoon. Be warned that harvesting hops with any degree of care takes a lot longer than you might think, particularly when you only have a couple of plants and they feel a little precious after months of bine twiddling, feeding and watering.

Just to remind you, we have just three varieties here, which are each grown along wires stretched across two fence panels apiece. These plants are now in their second year, and the difference in the number of hop cones on all plants compared to year one was obvious from the early Summer months. The WGV Goldings went crazy once again, tangling themselves up with all manner of other plants and even managing to grow across the other side of the fence and across the roof of our neighbours’ garage. The Fuggles were perhaps the most impressive this year though, with fewer but impressively larger cones than the WGV. Particularly pleasing was the improvement in the Bramling Cross, which struggled to produce any cones last year but looked really attractive this time round and offered up plenty of bunches of good looking green hops to pick.

We aim to harvest our hops in early September after several days of dry weather and just before the cones start to turn brown. This year all the hops seemed to mature earlier than in 2008. I wouldn’t say they were all ‘papery’, but they were certainly full of orange-yellow lupulin (the good stuff) and would have certainly gone past their best if another week of rain had set in. So down they came.

Our harvesting technique isn’t particularly refined, but seems to work just fine. We use chunky kitchen scissors to cut down manageable chunks of bine from the wires in lengths of about a metre at a time. We then snip each cone at its base into a bin liner stretched over a fermenting bucket and throw spent bines and leaves into the compost or brown bin. We have ripped off the cones by hand in the past, which can be quicker, but I worry that we lose a lot of lupulin this way, so probably waste a lot of time with all the over-careful snipping.

We managed to harvest an overflowing 25 litre fermenter bin full of WGV, nearly as much Fuggles, and around half a bin of Bramling. We were really pleased with this, as well as the quality of most of the cones. Frankly, as you’ll see in the photos, we couldn’t really handle many more hops using our current drying technique (but piles of newspaper pockets would work just fine, no doubt).

The next step was get the things drying, and we decided to use the technique that worked best last year – the loft oast! The idea is that a combination of scattering hops at a single depth on a dry absorbent surface, warmth from the house below and a hot airy loft gets the hops dry quickly and without any fear of mould or rotting. It worked a treat in 2008, so was a no-brainer this year. Of course the increased volume of hops made it a trickier operation. We ‘carpeted’ all available loft space with cardboard removal boxes stored for the purpose, then began scattering from the far end, leaving obvious gaps between the three varieties. Once we were done and ‘painted into a corner’ back by the loft hatch, we surveyed our green pungent crop like hydroponic drugs barons before retreating back to the house below for a week or two.

So all-in-all, a successful and very satisfying Harvest ’09 so far, with plenty of hops drying away happily above our heads. Take a look at the gallery below if you’d like to see for yourself how it all went, and feel free to drop us a line if you want to share your own hop harvest tales or ask anything at all. We’ll post an update soon once all the cones are dry and we put them in storage.

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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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