Monday, August 22, 2011
Down On The Farm: Weyerbacher Hop Harvest
This little beer world of ours is pretty small sometimes. On occasion I have a run in or get to do something that is pretty cool and gets my little beer geek heart a thumping. I had one of these experiences last weekend when, thanks to an invite from Philly Beer Scene, I was lucky enough to help the fine folks of Easton's Weyerbacher Brewing Company with their 2011 hop harvest.
I arrived at the farm of Weyerbacher's founders, Dan and Sue Weirback, bright and early like a kid on the first day of school. There was already a small group of other helpers there when I arrived, they were just starting to cut down the first line of hop bines. The Weirbacks had planted 9 lines of Cascade hops for this year's Harvest Ale, there were some Nugget hops planted but apparently didn't make it to harvest. Once the first line of bines had been cut down we headed back to towards the house to get to work. First the bines had to be stripped of the hop cones and then they would sorted through, removing all of the leaves and twigs. My buddy Steve arrived a bit later, ready to work for a few hours before he had to head back to his real job. We were both in awe in the presence of so many fresh hops. I had seen plenty of hops at breweries and even some homegrown batches at friends' house but never in this kind of volume. It was really amazing, I was in heaven.
Stripping the bines is a pretty thankless job. We would hang the bines from a tree and basically run down them with a closed fist to get all the cones off which sounds pretty simple but the piles of the bines never really seemed to decrease. I much more preferred sorting through the hops. Once the strippers had enough hops to fill a trash can they would dump the hops out onto a table and groups of 5 or so would sit there and comb through the pile, picking out any extra bits that they didn't want going into the brewhouse.
Apparently I had a pretty good stripping technique though because every time I took a break from that to help the sorters, Dan would come over and ask me help them out a bit more. Oh well.
Luckily Dan and Sue were generous enough to offer us all the Autumn Fest we wanted. There seemed to be an endless line of sixtels brought outside for us workers to enjoy, even Dan's personal tap inside the kitchen was up for grabs. I'm sure that there was conscious decision made to only offer Autumn Fest for the day because if they had been pouring any other Weyerbacher brew that had a bit of a higher ABV I don't think much work would have gotten done. There was however a very special treat brought out around lunch, bottles of their not yet released Flemish Sour Red Ale Rapture. I was more than excited to be getting pours from these unlabeled bottles at the house of the owner of one of my favorite breweries, a memorable beer geek moment. They're not quite sure what they will be doing with this one since it is too limited a batch to really distribute but it sounds like it will be available at the brewery at some point. If you're in the Easton area I would highly recommend getting your hands on a bottle or two because they have definitely hit the mark.
We slowly lost workers as the day went on. The rain came and went but the dedicated folks of the bunch held out until every damn hop had been picked and bagged. By the end of the day we were all exhausted and quite anxious to get through the last batch. At some point towards the end of the harvest my body decided to turn against itself as I became quite allergic, unable to stop myself from tearing up and sneezing. I'm sure the rain didn't help. Eventually we did it. Every last bine was stripped, hops sorted out, the sacks were filled and piled on the porch. I don't remember how many sacks we filled but I can assure you it was a lot. I'm anxious to hear how many pounds of hops end up being used for the Harvest Ale, the fresh hops were only being used for flavor and aroma since the IBU's couldn't be calculated in time. By now the batches have been brewed and are awaiting bottling, eventually coming out sometime in September. You can rest assured that I'll most definitely be picking myself up a case when it does.
I was so thankful to be there for this enlightening experience, it was wonderful to see just how much work goes into a beer like this. Weyerbacher can call this one a true hand-crafted ale, anyone who argues that can come talk to me. Not surprisingly, there were some characters from the Hulmeville in attendance but I also met some new people who I hope to see again. Dan and Sue were the perfect hosts, they were even kind enough to send everyone home with their own case of beer, a bag full of fresh hops, and I even got to leave with a bottle of Rapture which I will have a hard time finding an appropriate time to open.
Even though I could barely breath or keep my eyes dry the rest of the day, I can't regret going. I got to play with hops from 9 am until 7 pm...I think I've had a dream like that before. When I woke up the next day my forearms were covered in itchy bumps and scratches that didn't go away for days but that was a small price to pay in my opinion. Unfortunately this might be the last year Weyerbacher grows their own hops at this scale just because of how labor intensive it ends up being so I was even more glad I had the opportunity to help out this year. A big thank you to Mat from Philly Beer Scene and the Weirbacks for having me.
If you find the 2011 Harvest Ale in your glass you can now fully appreciate how much tender, love, and care went into bringing you that hoppy goodness.