Hop to the Harvest

Hop to the Harvest

By Tony Forder

It was good to be in the fields again. I spent several years picking grapes in the south of France, apples and all kinds of fruit in my native England, potatoes and cabbages with frozen fingers in the Isle of Wight winter, even tobacco in southern Ontario. I was what you might call a modern day migrant worker. One year my girlfriend and I followed the grape harvest on our trusted motorbike all across France and into Switzerland – two and a half months of clipping raisins. The proceeds brought us three months in India and Nepal.

I digress. The fields I am referring to now, well one field really, is the Westtown Brew Works hopfield in the Warwick Valley, an hour and a half north and west of NYC. This small brewery has been harvesting hops for half a dozen years. It’s only a little over an acre, but it’s part of the farm brewery ethos that is sprouting all over New York State.

“Prodigal return, of Humulus Lupulus, Back in NY State”

We were a small crew: Briana Hedderick, who is the guardian of the Westtown hopfield (as well as running their tasting room); her right hand hop helper Amanda; myself, the volunteer; brewery owner Rich Coleman who was bouncing back and forth between other duties; and Justin Riccobono of Hudson Valley Hops who had brought the crux of the operation, his hops harvester. Rich related how, after handpicking hops the first year and filling every room in his house to dry them, he got smart and hired Justin who pulls his harvester around to half a dozen farms during harvest season and offers drying and pelletizing at his facility in New Paltz.

Briana cuts the bines
Justin feeds the bines into the Hops Harvester

The work was not that hard physically, perhaps tedious, still I was used to that. After caring for the bines (not vines) all year, Briana took the task of cutting them from the trellises. She’d fashioned a custom knife taped to an extension pole enabling her to reach the top of the vines standing in the bed of the pickup truck. The bines were then cut from the bottom and loaded onto the pickup truck to deliver to the bottom of the hill where Justin fed them into the hungry harvester. The machine is designed to strip the cones from the bines, saving hours and hours of hand labor; my job was to unhook the plucked bines. The downside is there’s 15-20% waste, which, for the frugal hop grower, can be reclaimed by the old hand picking method. I took some home with me and made a fresh hop homebrew – Chinooks, Cascades and Brewers Gold.

“Harvest time signals, Transmutation of the hop, Bine to beer journey”

Justin said that due to a somewhat wet summer and lack of solar radiation, bines on many farms “had not reached the wire” – that’s the 20-foot trellis. The yield at Westtown was mostly decent. The Brewers Gold were probably the fullest, the Chinooks had the biggest cones, and the Cascades were OK. A couple of other varieties were not worthy of the harvester and would have to be picked by hand.

Tony in Hop Heaven

I asked Briana if she ever thought about the New York State heritage of hop farming she was reviving when she was working in the hopfield. “Yes,” she replied thoughtfully, yes I do.” In its heyday in the mid-1800s there were some 40,000 acres devoted to hop farming in NY State. Now there’s about 500, mostly small growers, but it’s growing rapidly.

Justin opined that NY State hop farmers are not only reviving the hop industry but are helping to arrest the decay of farming in the state. Established farms are turning to hops as an additional crop for their portfolio. Other hop farmers, small and large are looking to the progression of the farm brewery license that will require 60% state grown hops by 2019 and 90% by 2024.

One acre is probably not enough to become a commercially viable hop farm – hops require a lot of maintenance. For growers like Westtown the purpose is to comply with the spirit of the farm brewery and to have the ability to present visitors with beers bursting with hops grown in view of the drinker – and the satisfaction of drinking your own hops.

It wasn’t quite like the traditional hop harvest in southeast England where I was raised – when East Enders from London would descend to toil in the hopfields, fueled by barrels of cider. But, still it was good to be back in the fields.

“Hop bines reach for sky, Kettle extracts the flavor, Fresh hops in the glass”