By Vito Delucchi
There are many hop growing regions around the world and their harvest times vary based on the climate. Here on the west coast of the United states, harvest typically starts in late August and goes through most of September. Whereas Southern Hemisphere hops from places like Australia & New Zealand are harvested during our summer months. I've only done selection in Washington state, in the Yakima valley region to be specific. So my experiences and all the pictures are from farms and companies in that area. Speaking of farms, that's where it all starts, with the hop farmers. They can’t control the weather, but years of experience, good soil management, harvesting tools, etc., make different farms’ lot varieties stand out in a lineup. Farms typically dedicate portions of their total acreage to specific varieties. Although all the hops are harvested at essentially the same time frame, some varieties are considered early and others late harvest.
Most brewers don’t start showing up for selection until the tail end of the harvest season. Reason being, is the varieties you plan to select need to be picked and dried before you can properly analyze them. The Yakima Valley is a site and smell to behold during that month or so; everyone is working around the clock, from the farms to processing & warehouse facilities. It’s the definition of a seasonal economy with harvest bringing in people from around the country and even world!
Getting back to the farms, I think it’s important to touch on the process that leads to hop selection or at least as I understand it. Farms not only grow the hops, they also typically handle harvesting, drying and baling. These bales are then sent to hop brokers and resellers to be sold as whole cone hops or pelletized, cryotized you name it. It’s at that next junction (i.e. with the brokers and resellers) in the hops lifespan that brewers typically do selection. In order to visit the actual farms you need to work with the resellers to schedule a visit or build relationships on your own. The Hop Farmers are great people and passionate about what they do. But they’re also very busy and are trying to sell their entire lots, not a few pounds or even a few hundred pounds at a time.
The time has come…you’re queuing up to rub some hops, oh what a joyous feeling it is. What varieties will they be? Where were they grown? What are their myrcene and linalool levels? How did I get here? Let’s start with that one, depending on how many pounds you plan to contract for the year you either do group or solo selection. Group selection is for breweries who don’t qualify for the minimum reqs to select solo. I believe it’s several thousand pounds of one or two varieties to qualify, but don’t quote me on the exact details. Essentially you will be paired up with a few other breweries and have to come to a consensus on the lots you select together. Solo…well, it’s just that; you and several others from your brewery or company purchasing etc.
Ok let’s talk about the what & where now. Based on what you plan to contract and the volume you’re purchasing you will be selecting on those varieties. Basically you’re going to get samples of what you plan to buy. Then depending on who you’re selecting from this is where it gets geeky and I love it! All resellers typically have data on every lot i.e. acid, oil content etc. They typically pre select a few lots (5 or 6) that they think fits what you're looking for (Fruity? Dank?). Some companies use software and take your previous selection data to help aid in this process. They even set you up in a room with a terminal so you can access previous and current data on what’s in front of you. If all this R&D isn't enough for you to find a winner out of the few they put in front of you, you can always ask for a few More! Lots to select from.
We’ve touched on the science behind hop selection, now let’s talk about the art. Taking a healthy pinch of freshly dried hop cones into your hand and breaking them open releasing their aromas. Visualizing with your senses what that hop will be like once it’s further dried out, pelletized and ultimately in your finished beer. Just like beer judging I find this process to be very personal and try to approach it that way. There is no right or wrong answer, you might absolutely love one lot and someone in your group not so much. Typically even with a single brewery you will still have struggles finding consensus. The best way to approach this, just like beer judging review the common descriptors (Berry, Stone Fruit, Melon, Onion / Garlic, etc) Use those with levels i.e. “High Berry” etc and rank them as you independently and quietly (Don’t plant seeds in others heads) take your own notes. Then once everyone is done discuss your notes and use your rankings to help decide the winner. Believe me, after 10 hours and over a dozen varieties of selecting in one day you're going to get pallet fatigue and want to approach it with some methodology. Once all your lots have been selected you then (again depending on how much you're purchasing) tell them how you want them to process T-90 Pellets etc. They will then keep your hops cold stored and ready to ship to you as needed. That storage price is typically baked into the hop contract for that year. If you end up not using it all, storage fees can get applied etc. But let’s not finish on the business side of things. You're in the hop capital of the US, finish at one of the local spots and have a beer with all the other brewers in town. Cheers to hop selection!
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