Tag Archives: History

The Joy of Hop Harvest

I visited my first oast in 2011 at Hop & Brew School in Yakima, Washington during the hop harvest. With the temperature breaking 130 and the humid air made more lethargic by sleepy vapors, I saw a football field-sized, three-foot-deep bed of freshly de-bined hops and thought, What a wonderful world. The extensive piece I wrote about the action packed two-day experience was published in the newsletter of the Cascade Brewers Society and read by approximately twelve people.

Seven years later, the process is no less beguiling; nor has it changed much. This year, I toured Crosby Hop Farm’s fields and processing plant with my New School crew Ezra (founder) and Michael Perozzo (southern WA contributor). I took some video that smoky morning, and spliced together a quick tutorial on the process (I did the music too!):

Those are the basic maneuvers performed at any hop farm. What the video fails to capture is the momentum of history, the pace of information, and the contiguity that hop farmers have with the craft beer world.

Before the early 00’s, hop farmers were dealing with a just few people who represented giant brewing entities with no need for creativity. At the same time, hop breeders were at the precipice of the future, with Simcoe and Amarillo hops achieving acreage for the several hundred craft breweries (microbreweries we called ’em then, kids) that made beer with flavor and adventurousness. Yes, Cascade had been a hit long before, but that was low wave on a shallow shoreline compared to what was about to crash on the sands of our sensory glands.

The evolution of craft beer in the 21st century parallels that of social media and global information sharing. With the communities that flourished on the internet, including the beer rating sites Beer Advocate and RateBeer, beer drinkers had a “virtual pub” in which to discuss and rave about their favorites. The IPA buzzword “IBU” and now-patented hop varieties, with their “citrusy” and “dank” aromas, quickly rose in the ranks of the collectively inebriated unconscious. There was demand, craft brewers listened hard, and in turn put demand on hop growers for more aroma varieties.

Over the decades of commercial hop growth and brewers contracting in hop futures, there has always been a shifting balance of aroma and bittering hop acreage. Farmers must be brutally honest with their plants to be successful, which means tearing out rows to replace them with varieties that, ideally, will be very popular in two years. Despite the Internet, hops don’t grow any faster.

Fast forward a little bit, to around 2008. Although fresh hop beers were not entirely new, their popularity had grown quite a bit. This meant that more brewers were getting directly in touch, going to the fields, and trading information with hop growers.

Crosby Hop Farm has taken a leading edge on this front. Blake Crosby, a 5th generation hop farmer, sunk his teeth into the business several years ago. Rather than just sell hops to wholesale brokers, he guided the farm through a renaissance that would incorporate growing, processing, importing, and direct sales and marketing into an all-hops-everything juggernaut in the Willamette Valley.

I covered the early season process and a bit about Crosby in an article for the Oregon Beer Growler earlier this year. But this tour, just when the harvest was winding up to go full bore, made it clear that the relationships that hop growers like Crosby and Goschie farms have with brewers and drinkers is another seam strengthening the fabric of craft beer.

Since Crosby integrated other aspects of the hop business, it’s had to build a strong marketing team and develop language that diverges from the agronomic lingo you’d hear at a Hop Growers of America meeting. Now, the story of the farm becomes part of its terroir. Its Salmon Safe certification isn’t just for the land, it’s part of the salesperson’s toolbox. Welcome to the 21st century, hops!

Though marketing is never a measure of quality in any product, closing the gap between producer and consumer does enhance the information relay. Does a beer drinker need to know the hop grower? Obviously not, the same way we don’t need to know our chicken farmer. But it sure does help make informed decisions. And really, hops are far outside of the scope of scrutiny for the ethically-minded consumer. The Salmon Safe designation is, as far as I can tell, the best compromise between conventional and organic pest and fungus management. Every hop grower I’ve spoken with says that the time and effort to get a much lower yield using organic practices is hardly worth it on any sort of production scale. That’s to be taken with a grain of salt, as certain hops do better in different climates and can be successfully grown organically; those are not the hops people are looking for in an IPA, though. The point: if you, the consumer, prefer drinking organic beer, you have the ability to contact the producers of organic ingredients and find out who uses them.

As we roll into fresh hop season, complete with the crazy array of fresh hop festivals in the region, it’s worth appreciating the incredible amount of hard work at hop farms between August and October. A lot of the manual labor is done by temporary workers, many of whom are Latino men and women. Many farms have on-site labs. Crosby has a pelletizer as well, and a warehouse of hops to manage and rotate through. Hops go from the field to a ready-to-brew format in just a couple days, which is part of what makes the harvest so exciting; in the coming months, as breweries start brewing with their 2018 hops, we’ll start tasting the effect of this year’s weather on the first crop of Amarillo grown on Crosby soil.

Drink Local Invasives: History in a Glass

In the late 1800s, Alexander Seavey and his sons planted hops on what is now Buford Park and Mount Pisgah between the Middle and Coast forks of the Willamette River. Hops were the primary crop grown then, as the Willamette Valley became the biggest hop growing region in the country, and exported hops all over the world. The original variety cultivated was Cluster (thought to be a hybrid of imported and native cultivars), though more varieties, such as English-bred Northern Brewer, trickled in as the industry matured.

The Seavey family operated hop farms up and down the Willamette Valley until just after World War II, even through Prohibition; European agriculture was heavily damaged during World War I, but brewers still needed hops. During that time, they also planted orchards of plum, cherries, hawthorn, and apple. The family’s legacy is now in name: Seavey Loop Road connects Eugene and Springfield to Buford Park; it is still mostly farmland.

In 2012, some Cluster hops were found growing wild in Buford Park. Because they are technically an invasive, the native garden nursery there was not allowed to propagate the plants. Rhizomes were given to Agrarian Ales, where they now grow on an artfully conceived “hop dome” near the brewery.  Similarly, the apple and hawthorn trees that have survived are not considered native. However, they have been put to use by WildCraft Cider Works, which has produced two vintages of Pisgah Heritage Cider using only fruit from that orchard.

A glass of Pisgah Heritage Cider
WildCraft’s Pisgah Heritage Cider uses apples from the original homestead orchard.

On June 23, 2018 during Oregon Cider Week, the park held its first Pisgah Heritage Festival. Visitors could peruse the native plant garden, meet with local nonprofits involved in preserving the environment around the park, and enjoy beer and cider from Agrarian Ales and WildCraft. A feature of the festival was a talk about the hops and orchard, led by Friends of Buford Park & Mount Pisgah’s Stewardship Director Jason Blazar, with WildCraft founder Sean Kelly and Ben Tilley, co-founder of Agrarian Ales.

Blazar started the talk with some history about the crops, and noted that not all invasives are pests. “We can fight plants, or recognize that some plants have intrinsic value,” he said, offering up that some invasive species can be used and managed for value-added efficiency. The Cluster “hop refugees” growing at Agrarian Ales are an example of this.

Tilley described the Cluster hop cones as having an “incredible amount of lupulin,” like a bee’s pollen packet that virtually explodes from the flower as it matures. That the hops survived in the wild for so long has made them quite resilient, and resistant to the mildews and other diseases that plague hops in the Willamette Valley. Tilley also mentioned that an old farmer from Detering Orchards, near Agrarian Ales, told him that hops were grown decades ago on the very spot where Agrarian’s grow now. Back then, women and children worked the harvest, and the kids didn’t go to school until all the hops were picked.

Agrarian brewer Nathan Tilley worked with Blazar to develop the recipe for the beer served at the event, Fog on the Mountain. It is a refreshing, cloudy pale ale that was dry-hopped with the Cluster during fermentation. Both 2016 and 2017 harvests were used in the brew. Notes of peppery farmhouse yeast add a zingy zest to the hops, which display a bit of the Cluster’s notorious cattiness along with subtle guava.

Though the hops are grown at Agrarian, the bines are transported to Buford Park for a ceremonial hop picking party. Last year’s fires caused concern that the hops would impart a smoky flavor to the beer, but that seems not to be the case; at least not yet, according to Kelly.

WildCraft served the 2016 and 2017 vintages of Pisgah Heritage Cider. Both are classically English in presentation: very dry, with a strong tannic presence. The 2016 had dropped clear, evincing a bright, candy-like acidity. The 2017, which I sipped during the talk, was only packaged two days before, and displayed a brusque, burlap, rustic tannin; a different sort of apple presence that begged to be paired with cheese and charcuterie. With time, it too will clear up and mellow, displaying its true terroir. “Every profile-landscape takes time to evolve. Things need to settle and relax.” Kelly told me after the talk that cider, like wine, needs six to nine months before its sense of place comes to the fore; it could be that those 2017 hops, in the right conditions, could eventually show some smoke.

Kelly is an eloquent speaker, even off the cuff. He exists in a biologically dynamic mindset that is pragmatically naturalistic, humanitarian in the earthiest sense. That means he moves at a different pace, and seems to simultaneously cultivate and harvest from his surroundings, be they an orchard or a hip-hop show.

He gave an overview of apple fermentation. “Apples encapsulate the yeast of the spring,” quite literally, he said. The fruit grows around the flower, rather than from the stem. Notice that the core of an apple has hollow space compared to a pear. Kelly says this is where the yeast is preserved. The skin of an apple also carries yeast, but it can be removed, even bleached away, and the fruit will still naturally ferment.

The history of homestead orchards could be (and should be, and maybe is) a book. Kelly spoke about the purpose of the thousands of acres of apples planted over 100 years ago. They certainly weren’t for apple pie; they were for fermenting into cider to be drunk, served still from a cask, or for distilling into fuel for farm machinery. The latter practice was outlawed, and Kelly waxed a bit political: “Whether or not I agree with how America has gone its course is a different thing.” The prohibition of home distillation requires farmers to rely on commercial fuel, which supersedes a closed-system ecology. Again– could/should/might be a book.

Here, Blazar interjected with some history of the land. Elijah Bristow, the Virginian who became the first white person to settle in Lane County, put his stake in Pleasant Hill, and described Mount Pisgah as “the promised land,” according to Blazar. At that point, the history of the landscape changed forever. Bristow and future settlers brought not only disease that killed the original settlers, the Calapooya tribe, but also the endemic penchant to manage the land a certain way. Native plants weren’t given a second thought as agriculture came to the oak-spotted prairie.

Now, Friends of Buford Park & Mount Pisgah work with what they’ve got, and have indeed improved the abundance of native species. Even still, blackberries, hawthorn, Scotch broom, and other invasives are difficult or impossible to eradicate. Again, Blazar, who has been with the nonprofit for a long time, cited a progressive model of remediation. “As we look forward, we have to learn from these experiences. Not wage war on weeds, but look at the benefits they provide for us as a community.” The benefits can be intangible, as this educational talk proved, or tangible to the point of consumable, as the cider and beer act as anthropological artifacts that connect the people that drink them with the origin and history of the ingredients.

buford_buds
Sean Kelly, Jason Blazar, and Ben Tilley at the first Pisgah Heritage Festival.

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Resources:
“‘Hop Fever’ in the Willamette Valley,” by Peter A. Kopp
“High hopes for hops,” by Tim Christie
“Early Day Story of Lane County and its Settlement is Recounted,” by Frank Fay Eddy

Prague is, like, immortal

The writer’s notion of peeling away layers, looking for truth below the surface– that’s Prague. Its history is literally buried within itself, plastered over and adorned in progressing aesthetics, chronologically made over. Building facades in the Old Town may be scraped away to reveal the tastes of the wealthy and innovations of architects from hundreds of years ago. Down a flight of stairs, walls and doorways of different eras mingle in the hallway of a school, a library, a knight’s quarters.

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Looking through a Renaissance doorway to a Roman doorway. Notice the thickness of the walls.

Simultaneously, traumatic cultural memories are preserved. The Pinkas Synagogue is a memorial that depicts the names of all of the Czech Jewish holocaust victims, written on the walls, organized by town and family name. Upstairs is an exhibit of work done by children in the camps; the adults tried to form at least a shell of an educational system to keep the chaos from fully subsuming the youth, and art became a way for many children to process their experiences. Some of the drawings and paintings are very dark, and show more truth than a photograph ever could.

A sculpture installation on the way up the hill towards the Prague Castle, the Communism Victims Memorial, depicts duplicates of a tall, skinny man cast in bronze; as the statues recede they deteriorate, becoming stripped away of identifying features, of their humanity.

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Communism Victims Memorial in Prague

There are far fewer of these totems in the U.S. That’s a function, I think, of the country’s relatively short existence, and of its half-hearted acknowledgement of the damage it did through slavery and the displacement of the Native Americans, to really lean in and call it what it is, to give it a proper title. Maybe in time; maybe there will be memorials to the poor, too. Those are my thoughts about that; Prague provokes a lot of thought.

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Pilsner originated in Pilsen, and it is only beer from Pilsen that’s called Pilsner in the Czech Republic. That’s what it means: from Pilsen. Other pale lagers are Světlý Ležák, and the dark lager is Tmave, or Tmavy. There is not, as far as I’ve had, anything in the U.S. called a Czech pilsner that looks or tastes remotely like any of the local beers I tried in Prague. The exception would be Krusovice, which was okay but nothing to write home about. It was thin and lacking in flavor compared to the others.

It is an advantage to serve one’s beers mere feet away from the brew deck, and that’s not uncommon at breweries here. Some brew houses were literally just inside the front door, in full operation. Visual “wow” factor aside, the beer is served as fresh as can be for a lager, which has presumably sat for weeks or months before serving. Funny thing is, very few of the draught beers were crystal clear. Many had haze that ranged from slight to glowing; some were quite clear but not as brilliant as, say, a Kölsch. None were the bright pale gold that identifies a U.S.-brewed Czech pils. All had the same wonderful zing of Saaz hops.

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The brewery just inside from the beer garden at Pivovar Narodni

The wildest thing about these lagers was the texture, the way the maltiness, bitterness, and unfiltered bits played across my tongue. There was a suede grip that I attribute to decoction (boiling a portion of the mash) that mediated the sweetness-bitterness balance, negotiated a congenial division of lingual custody, all the while refreshing the palate, leaving only footprints.

The characteristic buttery/butterscotch/slick tonsil sensations of diacetyl were alarmingly absent from these beers, and I’m not sure if it was my own rapturous glee at drinking the beer from the place, or if the fermentation byproduct was so well masked by the bitterness and malt flavor, or if my low sensory threshold was also on vacation, or if the beer being alive and unfiltered had allowed for the reabsorption and dismantling of the molecule by yeast, which can happen. Either way, the normally offensive compound, (CH3CO)2, was a blurry bassist on the album cover of Czech lager.

Pub and bar culture in Prague is, to put it lightly, strong. And we didn’t even get into the mixology. Lokál Dlouhááá is one of a small chain of bar/restaurants located a hip section of Dlouhá Street. Getting to anywhere from anywhere in Prague is a data-suck for tourist phones, and Lokal proved no different. Our first attempt took over a half hour, twice as long as it should have from our Airbnb off Wenceslas Square. The place was jam packed, with at least an hour wait. We were hangry, gave up, and crammed down very salty burritos from next door. (Why burritos in Prague, you ask? Because they’re fucking comfort food and the easiest thing to order anywhere, except when the kid making them is a prick. See? Hangry memories.)

We returned the next night and followed some other guys in, past the front bar that had some craft beers on tap but was too packed to read, into another large room full of tables and maybe another bar, and finally into a third room (about 1/4 mile from the door) with a long copper bar atop glass cases containing large stainless steel tanks of Pilsner Urquell. We got the attention of a server, who, despite the din and ruckus of the place, kindly acknowledged our presence and said we would probably get a seat in 20 minutes. So we stood near the bar for a while trying to suss out the situation, then elbowed up and ordered beers from the busy bartender. The Urquell here was served three different ways: regular pour, “slice” (half foam), and some other word, which was pretty much a glass full of foam. Why foam, you ask? Well, it’s sort of a gimmick and sort of a beer geek thing. When a beer is poured like that (I ordered a “slice” first), it breaks out all this CO2 that evacuates the glass, and the beer, as the foam settles. What’s left, after you’ve coated your upper lip and the tip of your nose trying to get some beer, has the equivalent of cask conditioning and is very smooth. The whole balance of the beer is different with lower carbonation. But I do prefer a full mug of beer.

IMG_5964
The scene at Lokál Dlouhááá

We walked about 10 miles a day, each day wandering in a different direction, finding museums and cool buildings and pubs. In a riverfront park with a playground close to our hotel, a handful of wooden booths were being built. One of them served beer, sodas, and snacks. Beer. Served at a playground. These people know what’s important. Incidentally, the playgrounds we saw in Europe were amazing; they still design play structures that kids can injure themselves on, not these static plastic things with rubber floors you see around the States. I would go back just for the playgrounds with beer.