Tuesday, September 6, 2011
POLK COUNTY -- A few trucks struggled to start on this late August morning at Rogue Ale's micro hopyard. Two hours into picking, a trailer weighed down with hop bines is pulled into a processing bay, hobbling on a flat tire.
"It's the first day, normal ... all messed up," said Keven Christensen, farm manager at the site. "It's almost like you're never ready when you start the harvest.
"But you're ready enough," Christensen quickly added. "You work out the bugs those first couple of days and it gets going."
Hiccups aside, everything is moving at a brisk pace on the farm at the end of Wigrich Road. Top cutters and swathers cruise rows of hop trellis', trimming down bines laden with hop cones.
Aging pickups creak and groan as they haul loads of bines from the field to the picking machine, where laborers quickly string them up on hooks.
And there's hardly a spot on the property that isn't swimming in the aroma of lupulin -- the yellow resinous substance inside a hop cone that's key to beer.
"It smells amazing," said Natascha Cronin, who was hired as caretaker for Rogue's historic farmhouse and Chatoe Rogue tasting room in March. This is her first time seeing hop harvest at full tilt, she said.
Alas, the harvest at Rogue Ale's farm at the southeastern edge of Polk County is drawing to a close. During the last two weeks, the Newport-based beermaker has opened up the vine-to-bale process to the public to whet the
curiosity of beer enthusiasts.
"We take people on tours of the field and the processor during the offseason," Cronin said. "And they always ask when harvest is?
"There might be a picture of a hop on any beer can or bottle a person picks up," Cronin said. "But people don't always recognize what it means to beer."
This marks the 34th harvest for Christensen, who began hop farming for John I. Hass in St. Paul in 1977. He now works for the Coleman family, which purchased Hass' land in Independence and owns the 40 acres that Rogue leases.
Harvesting has evolved in the last 30 years, Christensen said. Instead of laborers hacking bines from atop a front loader with machetes, farmers use specially-built vehicles that can cut bines from the top and bottom.
A job that took three people now takes one, Christensen said.
But not all technology and methods have changed. Rogue still makes use of the more than 30-year-old machinery that sits in the hopyard.
Loads are brought into the picker warehouse, where bines are strung up on pulleys and moved through a system of screens and conveyer belts that strip bines and sort and move the precious cones.
Bines and leaves are shredded and plowed back into the fields as compost, with varieties kept separate to prevent crossbreeding.
The cones are moved to the kiln, where they rest on giant screens above diesel powered burners that consume about 15 gallons of fuel per hour, said Colin Wallis, farm mechanic. The hops dry for hours until their moisture content falls below 10 percent.
They're then cooled in giant piles and moved by augers to hydraulic balers that squash the product into 200-pound bales wrapped in burlap.
The hops are then driven to the Rogue Brewery in Newport, or transported to a facility to be processed into pellets that preserve longer.
Rogue grows seven different varieties of hops, with Centennial or Cascade hops renamed "Freedom" or "Rebel." By the end of harvest, the company expects to have produced between roughly 4.5 and 5.5 tons of hops.
Wallis, 25, grew up in St. Paul, one of the major hop growing spots in the state. He said he remembers hop trucks running nonstop through his community during the first month of school.
Ironically, this was Wallis' first involvement in a hop harvest.
"I'm familiar with the equipment, but the whole process is new to me," he said. "There's a little bit of a learning curve."
Christensen said he enjoys the hop harvest because of how unique it is to other crop commodities. It's also rife with lessons.
"One thing I've learned is you don't take vacations in August or September," he said. "I haven't had a Labor Day off for 34 years."
Between the 1920s and 1940s, Oregon was the nation's largest hop producer. At one point, farmers grew hops on nearly 20,000 acres, with the area around Independence dubbed "The Hop Capitol of the World." But land devoted to hops has dwindled in recent decades. Oregon harvested 4,600 acres of hops in 2010 and that will likely drop to 4,300 acres this year. Washington state, meanwhile, harvests about 23,000 acres.
Commercially-grown hops in Oregon are raised mostly in Marion County, with Polk County a distant second.
One-thousand pounds of Rogue's "Freedom" hops, the first variety picked, were transported back to the company's brewery in Newport to be transformed into a wet hop ale. From bine to kettle, only 1 hour, 33 minutes and 28 seconds elapsed.
Sources: The Oregon Encyclopedia, National Agricultural Statistics Service and Rogue.com.