It s Hop Harvesting Time

9/18/2010 2:00 PM
By Marjorie Struckle

Northeast Hops Alliance Hosts Field Day and Picnic

New York Correspondent

Hosts Kate and Larry Fisher, owners of Foothill Hops Farm in Munnsville, N.Y., greeted more than 60 participants from across the eastern U.S. and Canada for the Northeast Hop Alliance Hop Pickin and Picnic Aug. 28.

The event was sponsored by the Northeast Hop Alliance, Empire Brewing Co., NYS Brewers Association, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Madison County and Madison County Agricultural Economic Development.

Hops are used for flavoring and stabilizing beer while imparting a bitter flavor. Other value added products from hops are soaps, shampoos, teas, mustard, chicken rubs and lemonade.

Hops are unique plants

Once prevelant in Central New York, hops is now grown in a limited compacity. The Northeast Hop Alliance is a not-for-profit created to re-establish hop culture in New York state and the Northeast. Larry Fisher currently serves as the organization s president.

The region was once abundant with hop growers. Citing Michael Tomlan s book, Tinged with Gold, Kate Fisher offers three reasons commercial hop production became nearly extinct in the area: blue mold destroyed the crops; Prohibition reduced the demand for beer production; and large hop farms relocated to the West, where there was improved technology.

The hop plant (humulus lupulus) is a perennial plant which grows from a rhizome and doesn t produce until the third year of growth. After it dies off to ground level, it can grow the next season to a height of 20 feet along a string or pole trellis. Rapid growth occurs in June, July and August, with harvesting occurring in late August and early September. The hop is a female flower cluster referred to as a seed cone or stobiles.

The hop plant isn t actually a vine, but a bine. Unlike grape vines, hop plants have rough hairs, rather than tendrils, that cling to a trellis.

The Fishers experimented with various twines for training the plant before settling on the standard coir, a coconut fiber from Sri Lanka.

Guests Dan and Stephanie Button of Syracuse, N.Y., raise hops for their own production of beer.

Hops grow straight up. We grow them around the house in the city, Stephanie said.

They are considering a move to more acreage where they would like to include more hop production.

First, Dan said, they d like to attend the Hops 101 and 201 courses offered in October by the Northeast Hop Alliance and others at the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown. The courses cover history, horticulture, market analysis, nutrition and pricing in the first session, with more in-depth information on plant physiology, soil and plant nutrition, IPM strategies, disease identification and remedies, and more detailed pricing procedures in the second session.

Foothill Hops Farm production

The Fishers have three acres of hops, totaling 2,000 plants, although only one acre is in production as the remaining acreage is in the first and second years of growth.

One plant at full maturity and under optimum growing conditions can yield 11 dry ounces or 55 ounces wet weight, resulting in 1,000 pounds per acre. Large hop farms in the states of Washington and California will produce 2,000 pounds per acre.

We try to use up the last crop as we harvest the next season. As stored hops age, they become less potent and a greater amount must be added to the brew for the desired flavor, Kate said.

The Fishers raise Cascade and Willamette varieties for commercial sales and several organic varieties.

At this time, Empire Brewing Co. in Syracuse, N.Y., is only using our Cascades in the Empire State Pale Ale, because it is the only hop variety that we have in the quantities that they need for a year of brewing, Kate said.

Besides Empire Brewing Co., Foothill Hops Farm also sells several varieties of hops on a regular basis in smaller quantities to Manor House Brewing in New Jersey. And they are working with Brewing History in Syracuse on its inaugural beers.

We have sold our hops to other New York brewpubs in the past, having sold directly to Roosterfish Brewing in Watkins Glen, and through another New York grower/broker to Flying Bison in Buffalo and Rohrbach Brewing Co. in Rochester.

The green hops picked during the field day went to a harvest sale, she said.

Making harvesting easier

Due to the small acreage of hop production at Foothill Hops Farm, commercial harvesting equipment is not readily available. As a result, Larry Fisher has made a harvesting machine and has been fine tuning it over a period of three years.

With assistance from welder Jerry Reed, Larry reviewed expired patents to first make a horizontal harvester, but the plants wrapped around the gears and control issues lead them to concentrate on a vertical harvester. More picking fingers were added to prevent the machine from missing some of the hops and plans are in the works for more modifications next year.

Since Larry owns and operates Fisher Electric while Kate works at a local school, they depend upon hired labor.

As a hobby farm, Foothills Hops Farm requires a lot of labor, Kate said.

Scott Stewart and Mark Raymond work for Larry year-round in both Fisher s Electric and Foothill Hops. Scott does much of our tractor work in the hop fields, cultivation, fertilization, spraying and loading the harvester. Under Larry s direction, Scott built the harvester, Kate explains. Mark is our man on the ground, planting, irrigation, weed control, bine stringing and separating.

Kim Holmes, the office manager for Fisher s Electric, also does much of the hops processing and handles shipping for all online sales through Foothill Hops.

Kim is learning to home brew, so that she can better answer questions in the brew shop, Kate said.

At harvest time, the bines on the the trellis are cut down and transported to the harvester in a bucket loader. Scott climbs onto the platform of the harvester and attaches the bines to clips that move the plants across the harvester s picking fingers, which remove the hop cones from the bine. As the cones drop on to a conveyor belt and are dumped into a bin, the trellis completes the loop to be removed from the harvester, freeing the clip for another trellis. The string and remaining plants are composted.

The hop cones are passed through a separator, which separates the leaves and hops. Fans blow the leaves against the screens allowing them to ride up to the leaf tray, while the round hops drop below onto trays. Kim sifts through the leaves to remove additional hops.

The hops must be dried. In lieu of a press, a modified trash compactor presses two pounds of hops at a time. The hops are then vacuum sealed and frozen. To sell the hops commercially, the hops must be pelletized. The Fishers make the pellets during the winter with the stored hops.

Currently the pelletizer is in the house, but plans are to move it into the building with the separator. Pellets should be made between 100 and 105 degrees F. The machine generates 150-degree heat, so it is most economical to pellet during the cold winter weather.

Liquid nitrogen is injected into the machine to keep the temperature down. During hot weather, the liquid nitrogen evaporates rather than cools.

Larry has modified a commercial pelleter to food grade and can produce 40 pounds of pellets per hour.

Home brewers seek hops

Several varieties of hops are NOFA-NY certified. Most of the organic sales are made to the home brewers and home brew stores.

I m surprised there is no difference in the price for the organic product, Kate said. We sell to the commercial brewers for $16 per pound. At the store, home brewers looking for a smaller quantity can purchase the hops for about $2 per ounce.

Tyler Cross of Charleston, S.C., stopped by with his father, Don, of Hedge Lake, N.Y., because he brews his own beer and was hoping to find a less expensive source of dried hops. He learned hops can also be used for brewing while still green., but adjustments need to be made since green hops contain about 75 percent moisture compared to 9 percent when dried.

Kate said she believes the surge in demand for hops for home brewers has been driven by higher beer prices and the preferred local hops flavors.

Many of the visitors at the field day brew their own beer. Most home brewers use 1 !-W ounces to produce 5 gallons of beer. About 1 !-W pounds of hops are required to produce a 30-gallon barrel commercially.

Kate cut several trellises by hand to allow visitors a chance to hand pick the hops.

Due to the small number of organic hops, only hand harvesting is done. Kate said she can pick in 40 minutes what the harvester can pick in 20 seconds.

Visitors get close-up look

Kate opened a hop cone to show the yellow lupulin inside. A resinous oil is contained in the lupulin glands of the hop flower. When boiled in brewing, the oils are released to give beer its distinctive flavors and aromas. The bitter flavor balances the sweetness of the malt.

The hop is ready for harvest when the lupulins are bright yellow. Once the seeds have turned orange, they are too mature.

Kate demonstrated how to squeeze the hop cone near your ear and listen for the dry rustling sound like crinkled paper to test for readiness. If the cone sticks together and remains compressed, it is too sticky and wet for harvest. A rust color can indicate spider damage, while brown tips show a late harvest.

Will Emeny of Norfolk, Va., attended the field day because he is considering using some land on a home farm for hops. Although it will be several years before he leaves the Navy, he is researching the start-up costs, production and marketing of hops. He intends to learn much from growers and formal studies.

Jim Barnes, Waterville, N.Y., raises soybeans, green beans and corn on his family s former dairy farm.

During the 1800s, the farm was used to raise hops, he said. I am looking into bringing hops back to the farm. A cousin and a friend have begun raising hops as an ornamental around the houses. I am still researching the idea. I have the land, but labor may be the problem.

The visitors became acquainted with the Northeast Hop Alliance, learned of various techniques which may fit there own production and enjoyed fellowship.

The day ended with a four-course dinner at the Ye Olde Landmark Tavern in Bouckville and a beer pairing, showcasing the Cooperstown Brewery s variety of beers.

For information on the Northeast Hop Alliance, visit or contact Larry Fisher through the Foothill Hops Farm website at or calling 315-495-2451.

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