Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Saranac Hop Harvest: A Legal High

A Hop Harvest Volunteer…in a hoppy T-shirt
If you did not know it yet, hops are related to cannabis. It's fact. I would link to proof but you can imagine what comes up when you search "hops related to cannabis."

There is no need to promote those search results when a legal high is attainable. Here's how-
1. Attend a hop harvest
2. Pick hops (that releases the intoxicating aroma that soon fills the tent)
3. Have a beer or two while picking
4. Meet and talk to a bunch of like-minded beer fans

You become so elated that any worries you had in the days leading up to the harvest simply melt away.

Jen in Her Hop Bonnet
Disclaimer: Jen did not pick these hops
You start making hop bine wreaths (see left: I deemed them Hop Bonnets) and running around with them on your head. It seems very liberating.

You don't wash your grimy hands before you leave because you want to drive all the way home smelling the hops.

You make a pit stop on the way home and walk into a public place. You giggle to yourself as the people stare and wonder. You still have "the high" plastered across your face in the form of a big goofy smile. To the unfamiliar, hops can smell a bit like their cousin.

Everyone you meet becomes a new friend.

As I tweeted on the way home, I now feel like I am on a higher plain with craft beer having had the hop harvest experience. It was transcendental. I was at the origin of crafting a great beer.

New designation- you cannot claim to be a true hop head until you have volunteered to pick hops.

Let's Meet a Hop and Brewing Buff
I take up residence next to Patrick. He's got a pail and I don't. I forgot to bring one. If you saw the "process" post, I brought everything I actually did not need but forgot the one thing that would've made me more helpful. Luckily Patrick is willing to have some help filling his pail. We are picking Willamette hops. For the record, I spelled it wrong in my tweets. I always see it in my mind as Williamette.

Hop Picker Print
Patrick is a hop harvest veteran, having been to the harvest last year. By the way, last year's harvest was held during Hurricane Irene in a barn on the property of Wrobel Farms. He is a bit of a beer historian buff, thus the reason he joined the harvest last year. He did some research on beer brewing and had a few gigs teaching brewing at various museums. He taught brewing at the Daniel Boone Homestead in PA, the Ford Museum in MI, and some museums in upstate NY.

You can tell he is passionate about teaching those who love beer but don't know how it's made. He describes a bit about how people are fascinated by hops and he brought along a historical print about hop pickers to share with us. He made me a hop wreath which now hangs on my garage. No one has ever made me a hop wreath before. Man, did I ever pick a great person to start off my first ever hop harvest with!

I've Finally Met My Matts
Susan Matt talking with Rich Michaels
I head over to the barn where the specialty hops are being picked and after a few pictures I end up next to a lady who says she is only here because she has to be here. I think, "Hey, interesting angle to capturing why people join a hop harvest."She is picking some Cascade SD hops and putting them into a nice little pile on the table. Psst! Looks like she forgot to bring a pail too.

As I begin to record why she is here, it becomes clear rather quickly. She is Susan Matt, Nick Matt's wife. Nick is Chairman and CEO of FX Mattt / Saranac Brewery. OK, perhaps she is allowed to be pail-less. While she is somewhat obligated to be here, she finds it fun and enjoys being involved with reviving New York state as a hop growing state.

Before leaving the barn, I speak to a husband and wife team of hop pickers also working the Cascade SD table. Ken and Debbie are from a suburb of Utica. Debbie immediately shares how involved the Matt family is with the community and that she loves coming out to return the favor as a volunteer. I mention how there seems to be a lot of craft beer involvement in local communities and Ken agrees saying, "There's a relationship between the consumers and the companies that is really pretty good."

Debbie asks me if I have ever been to the Saranac Brewery. Unfortunately I haven't. Ken and Debbie highly recommend a visit. This message, along with the message that the Matt family does so much to support the community, is echoed a few more times in conversations throughout the day.

Saranac H2 and Cascade SD Hops
Susan takes a moment to give me a history lesson on FX Matt / Saranac. I've read some of it but it's so much better to get the lesson in person. As Susan explains, "At 124 years old, it is the United State's second oldest brewery. It survived Prohibition without closing its doors and has remained a family-owned business throughout its existence, when so many other American breweries are no longer American owned."

She's a bit amazed that she can even say that about FX Matt / Saranac in this day and age.

Fred Matt
Susan escorts me back to the main tent to introduce me to Nick, Fred Matt, Jim Kuhr, and Rich Michaels. I hope to secure an interview or two via Skype but I soon find myself invited to come up to the brewery and conduct interviews with all of them in person.

I am very pleased about the prospect of an FX Matt / Saranac-focused interview collection for my Craft You Interview Series. I cannot thank Susan Matt enough for the great conversation and making the introductions. Ladies and gentleman, we are about to find out a bit more about the passion and motivation behind the second oldest family owned brewery in America. Stay tuned.

A Wrobel History Lesson in Hops
Circa 1850s Hop Kiln on Wrobel Farms
Susan introduces me to Susan Wrobel, who is managing the specialty hop picking operations in the barn. I am intent on dipping under the CAUTION tape to get a better angle on the circa 1850s cobblestone hop kiln still standing on the property. Susan gives me the green light while sharing stories about the hop kiln, the heirloom hops that have survived since the hop growing heydays, and the general history of hop growing in the region.

I think this information is worthy of providing a little more detail so I will create a separate post about the personal history Susan shared.

Link to the history of the Wrobels and hops.

Get Back to Picking
While enjoying an Oktoberfest and another hot dog, a couple joins me at the table. They too have that look of the legal high I spoke about up top. They are speaking very glowingly of the event and the community focus of the Matt family. They tell me about the Boilermaker Road Race and Saranac Thursdays, and how the Matt family does so much for the community and for charity. They also share how much they've learned today about the history of hops through the experience Wrobel Farms and FX Matt / Saranac provided today.

Note: Being a "participative journalist", and relatively green behind the ears at journalism-ing, I only managed to get the name of the husband, Gary. So if any readers know Gary and ? at the hop harvest I will update the post and thank you profusely. 

Heirloom "P" Hops
I make my way back to the tent and join them at the Mt. Hood table. I meet a new couple, Steve and 'Bert (short for Alberta). Now Steve and 'Bert are an older couple by age, but by mind and attitude they seem many years younger than most of us under the big top. They are full of spunk and energy. Gary professes his love for the spunk of his new friend 'Bert but Mt. Hood hops he does not love so much. He feels they are rather resistant to picking.

Steve and Gary are teaming up on one pail and 'Bert and I on the other. For the record, 'Bert and I are flying. We kept running out of hops to pick. And that's even after Gary demonstrated his "Hop Claw" approach to picking.

At one point we get hopknapped by Fred Matt. After we remind him that hops are not allowed to cross rows, we let it slide because Fred was there the whole time picking hops with the volunteers. Nick and Susan too while Rich and Jim Kuhr managed the weigh station. Honestly, how often do you see the "roll up my sleeves and jump in" attitude from company management?

I venture off to another table where they are picking some of the heirloom hops. Soon Jim Wrobel enters the tent to explain the history of the heirloom hops we are now picking. It's a pretty amazing story. I will add this detail to the history post I spoke of earlier and link it here when published.

'Bert in her Hop Bonnet
I am walking around saying my goodbyes to the people I met when I run into 'Bert and Steve once again. They are off to a regularly scheduled Sunday date to one of their favorite beer bars. It's confirmed that they have that legal high I speak of. Just look at that picture of 'Bert.

Walking out to my car, I felt like I was walking on air. I recently had knee surgery but I don't feel an ounce of soreness after being on my feet for hours. I am a bit bummed to leave but I am bouyed by the knowledge that I will be back up to the brewery to interview the Saranac gang and to enjoy the beer that Saranac brews with the hops we picked that day.

On the ride home I was feeling so inspired I had to pull over a few times to record my thoughts about the day and how it raised me to a new level of appreciation for craft beer. I am still "buzzed."

Rich Michaels and Jim Kuhr Weigh In


  1. Great post! I was there too, it was my first experience picking hops and I had SUCH a great time. Met some great people... Already looking forward to next year.

    I have pictures up on my blog if you're interested: Saranac Hop Harvest 2012

    1. Thanks Amy for taking the time to comment and I am very glad you like what I had to say about the hop harvest.

      It really was an incredible event and I also look forward to next year.