North of San Francisco, nestled among golden hills sprinkled with old oak trees, the hop harvest is in full swing. Workers are busy picking and packing this year’s crop at Hops-Meister farm in Clearlake, while brewers are patiently waiting for deliveries. Fresh hop beer season has arrived. Over the next few weeks and months you’ll get to enjoy the fruits of their labor.
Hops provide bitter flavors and aromas to beer, like citrus, spice, pine, and even passion fruit. They’re derived from the hops lupulin glands, which are little balls covered with fine yellow powder containing essential oils and resin inside the flower. Depending on how they’re used, hops can provide a bitter balance to sugar rich malt, or dominate an India Pale Ale.
After the hops are picked, they’re typically kiln dried. Removing the moisture protects them from rot during long-term storage and allows them to be packed and shipped in tight bundles. The drying process is essential, but slightly reduces their aroma volatility and subtle flavors. This can be avoided during harvest season when whole cone hops are used straight from the vine, ideally within 24 hours.
Marty Kuchinski, the owner of Hops-Meister farm, is already busy making fresh hop deliveries to breweries in the Bay Area, and even expediting through SFO to brewers around the country. He’s come a long way since 2006, when growing hops “started out as a folly and grew to a hobby, and now it’s taken on a life of it’s own.” This year Marty and his wife Claudia are working on their eighth harvest of certified organic hops.
Social Kitchen brewmaster Kim Sturdavant visited the farm to inspect this year’s crop and prepare for his Wet Hop American Summer Pale Ale, which is being released next week. Kuchinski entertains quite a few brewers throughout the year. He’ll give them a tour, talk about the hops, and learn about each brewer’s preferences.
Kuchinski said, “We like the idea of brewers telling us what they like and what they don’t like in unfiltered terms so to speak. That part has helped us tremendously, not only in the varieties that we grow, but when we harvest. We want them to see the field, we want them to have their hands on it, and that type of participation benefits everybody.”
Hops-Meister farm is currently 22 acres in size and is poised to double that in two years. Kuchinski currently grows Centennial, Chinook, Cascade, Magnum and Columbus. Hops-Meister farm also specializes in Ivanhoe and Gargoyle hops, which are two California Cluster varieties that they’ve resurrected.
California was once the largest hop producer in the United States before prohibition. According to California Resources and Possibilities, 11,158 acres of hops were grown in 1911, producing 93,981 bales and 17,367,985 pounds of hops. The top five counties with the most acreage were: Sonoma (4,300), Sacramento (2,516), Mendocino (1,385), Yuba (1,122), and Yolo (1,116). Today it’s estimated that 50 acres of commercial hops are planted in California.
In 1913, the Durst Brothers Hop Yard, located north of Sacramento, was considered the largest hop field in the World. It was also the site of the Wheatland Hop Riot, a historic moment in the history of organized labor. The incident drew national attention to the conditions farm workers endured.
Hop growing declined in California during Prohibition. Farmers turned towards grapes, ranching, and other crops. The disappearance has made it difficult for Kuchinski and other hop farmers who are trying to establish the crop once again in Northern California.
According to Kuchinski, “We’ve been figuring out what varieties grow in California because there hasn’t been any commercial production in so long. There’s been a lot of trial and error. We’ve torn out a dozen different varieties. Mother nature has a way of humbling a farmer.”
Despite the challenges, Kuchinski’s hops have been used in several award-winning beers at the Great American Beer Festival. He currently ships to 40 different breweries in the United States, Canada and Mexico, including a few members of the San Francisco Brewers Guild.
Social Kitchen & Brewery
On Tuesday, August 20th, Social Kitchen brewmaster Kim Strudavant will release his Wet Hop American Summer Pale Ale, which contains a “humongous array of complex fresh hop aromas invading your olfactory senses and taste buds unlike anything you experience the rest of the year.” He also prepared a special cask conditioned version for the premiere at 4pm.
During the first week of September, Almanac will release three single hop, fresh hop IPAs. Cluster, Chinook and Cascade versions will be available on draft as well in 750ml bottles.
Speakeasy Ales & Lagers
On September 7th, Speakeasy will unveil their Wet Hop Big Daddy IPA at their 16th Anniversary Party. It will also appear at special events around San Francisco after the party.
Magnolia’s annual High Time Harvest Ale will be brewed any day now and get poured at their Haight Street pub two to three weeks later. This year their making two 100% varietal brews, one using Mosaic, and the other with Simcoe.
21st Amendment Brewery
Brewmaster Zambo plans on brewing a Wet Hop Pale Ale with Chinook and Cascade, using some second harvest local hops, that won’t likely be available until late October.
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Keep tabs on all the breweries via social media to find out specific release dates for each beer. Also, keep in mind that supplies won’t last long. Enjoy!
Photos © Brian Stechschulte