Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Saranac Hop Harvest: The Process, The Pails, and The Picking

Why We Volunteer
I arrived at Wrobel Farms to find dozens of hop picking volunteers already picking away at cut bines. As a member of Club Saranac I was invited to join Saranac Brewery in their 2012 hop harvest. I jumped at the chance to attend. Not only to experience hop harvesting first-hand, but also to share the experience with others who have never attended one.

In this post I will blog about the process and in a follow-up post I will blog about the people and the experience I had. There is simply too much information for one post.

I should note that Saranac is doing its part to support the local agricultural community through a partnership with Wrobel Farms.

So Hoppy to be Here
Come on. You had to know some happy/hoppy wordplay would be involved. Well, I got it out of the way early.

With the scariest part out of the way, driving my car directly off the highway into an undulating field of grass, I round the trees to enter the field of play. If you decide to attend in the future, don't drive anything with a stock low clearance and definitely not dropped…but I don't know too many craft beer / hop fans that put the drop on their rides.

The Hop Field
Along the far left edge of the field is the growing apparatus upon which the bines climb. The setup always reminds me of a cross between a telephone pole farm and an outdoor gymnast training facility. I did not measure (forgot my super-long and sturdy tape measure) but there were 4-5 linear rows of a half dozen or so poles every 20 ft. The poles were...say, 20 ft. high, with a single cable running the length near the top. Twine was tied from the plant to the cable. It seems like a pretty simple setup once you get past burying and securing the poles.

I would have to think some kind of powered lift had to be used to tie the twine to the cable at the beginning of the season.

Jim Cutting down Cascade
I think they were 20 ft. high because Jim Wrobel, being at least 6 ft., was able to cut them down with a long pole saw / clipper tool. I have one of these and it extends approximately 12 ft. or so.

It was inspiring to see so many bines full of hops.

Note about the telephone pole farm description: I don't know if this actually a thing but in Chester NJ there was a field supposedly owned by AT&T full of upright telephone poles. I believe they tested poles there? We called it a telephone pole farm but enough about that, let's get back to the hops.

Reporting for Duty

Boots on…check, hat…check, gloves…check, sunscreen…check. Turns out I did not really need any of that because Wrobel Farms had constructed a circus-sized tent in the middle of the field for the pickers.

After checking in I reported directly to Jim Wrobel, Chief Hop Picking Instructor (unofficial title) and co-owner of the farm. The other owner is his wife Susan, who is also providing support and instruction. As a married man on my own passion mission, I know full-well that much is not possible for a man to accomplish without a supportive and patient wife.

Pails and Pickers
Inside the tent were rows and rows of tables, each probably 40-50 ft in length. Each row was labeled with the hop variety to be picked in that row. All picking had to move in a linear fashion down to the end of the row where pickers would dump pails into a larger trash can. Saranac was very careful not have hop varieties cross from the row in which they were picked. The labeled large cans would then be taken to a weigh station to be weighed and put into large mesh bags.

Jim was also adamant (for obvious reason) that the whole cone be picked, even to err on the side of throwing some leaf and stem into your pail if that is what it would take to make sure you got the whole cone. Some cones seemed harder than others to pick. Mt. Hood seemed to provide the most resistance.

An experience time-out here: Can I just tell you how intoxicating the hop aroma was under that tent? Incredible! I did not wash my hands before I left so I could enjoy the aroma all along my 4 hour ride home.

A Stretcher full of Cascade 69
Bines were cut from the growing area and escorted onto the tent tables via stretcher-like carriers.

By the way, I asked Nick Matt about the choice between manual picking and using a machine. He mentioned how great it was to use the manual picking as a way to bring the community together to share the experience.

It wasn't too long into picking that I felt the same way. More on that here- (post about the people and the experience)

Break Time
In the back right corner of the field, Saranac had a tent providing food and drink. By the way, it was beautiful to look out beyond the hop harvest at the wide expanse of rolling mountains and farmland behind Wrobel Farms. On tap Saranac provided H2 (a Hefeweizen hopped up with last year's pickings), Lager, Oktoberfest, and Pumpkin Ale. Saranac also provided their line of sodas, along with water, hot dogs, and chips. I don't think the dogs were your regular store-bought dogs. They were sausage shaped and had a great snap to the skin when you bit into them.

I grabbed an H2 and a dog then headed over to a barn where Susan Wrobel was starting a group off with picking some specialty hops.

Pickin' in the Barn
Brewer's Gold in the Barn
In the barn, volunteer pickers from all walks of life were picking Crystal, Brewers Gold, and Cascade SD. I believe there was also an Heirloom variety being picked in the barn. As Susan Wrobel described it, some hops from the time when New York state was the top hop growing state in the union were found to be growing wild on and around the farm.

Through disease and pest outbreaks, and a ban during Prohibition, the hops have survived and have been propagated down through the generations of farm owners. They call these their Heirloom varietal as they have not been able to determine exactly what hop variety they are.

To note, Wrobel Farms evidently grows some very in demand garlic that gets sold to some top restaurants in New York City.

All in all, the hop harvest ran like a well-oiled machine. Nicely laid out, well planned, and instructed.

The great thing is that we will get a chance to experience the fruits of our labor. Saranac will brew a beer with the hops and invite the Club Saranac pickers to a party to celebrate yet another successful harvest.

I was hopping that would happen. Ha! Snuck in another one.

The End
To read more about the Wrobel's history with hops, click here.

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