Drinks

The Beer-Making Step You're Probably Forgetting

There's more to hops than just their place in your IPA
How Hops Are Harvested
Photos: Tasting Table

When you're tasting wine at a vineyard, you don't have to look far to find the source of what's in your glass. But when you're downing pints at a craft brewery, have you ever thought about where that beer really came from?

You can likely take a tour and see the mash tuns churning away in the background, but there's something else you're missing: the actual growing of hops, one of beer's basic ingredients. Even if you don't think you like classically hop-forward IPAs, the bitterness they're known for helps counter sweetness from another one of beer's characteristic ingredients, malted barley, in a variety of beer styles.

Ed Atkins, head farmer at Elk Mountain Farms in Idaho, says one of the biggest misconceptions people have about hops is that they're synonymous with bitterness. While they do contribute to flavor, that's only a quarter of the story: They also attribute aroma, stabilize foam and act as a preservative, thanks to antimicrobial properties.

We got to see hops in action at a recent trip to Goose Island's fields at Elk Mountain Farms, the largest contiguous hop farm in the world. There's an ironic contrast between the peaceful, idyllic farm—merely 10 miles south of Canada—and the rowdiness that its final product inevitably leads to.

Atkins grows more than 60 types of hops across 1,700 acres and has truly revitalized the farm over the past couple of decades. Needless to say, he knows his crop well.

When hops grow, they look like a cross between apple trees and vines. Mesmerizing, seemingly endless vines span across the fields, dotted with individual hops that grow on the vines and look like miniature artichokes. Brewers are after the yellow powder inside called lupulin, which contains the hop acids and oils. If you ever get your hands on some fresh hops, split one in half and rub it on your skin—you'll smell like you've started using IPA perfume.

In the same way that there are noble grapes used in winemaking (Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling, Merlot), there are also noble hops. For example, Centennial and Cascade are pronounced in IPAs like Goose Island's Goose IPA—which is the beer most produced from hops at Elk Mountain farms—while Saaz is prominent in great pilsners, especially from the Czech Republic. And hops too have terroir—that buzzy word sommeliers always throw around.

After being picked, the hops go through a maze of different sorting machines, plus heating and cooling, before being packed into hay bale-like bundles. It takes 200 pounds of hops to produce a single pallet, as after the moisture is released, the leaves are significantly lighter, almost feather-like. This signals the end of the hops’ time on the farm, but they still have an important job to do: the actual beer-making process done at the brewery.

Harvest season is an all-hands-on-deck type of situation. Many farmers even live on the property during the season, which starts around the end of August and can last through September, as their days consist of two 12-hour shifts, seven days a week.

Before each growing season, farmers burn down the fields and start completely anew, a process Atkins likes because he says it gives a sense of rebirth, no matter how good or bad the previous yield was. Every year is a new beginning with just as much promise for great beer as the last.

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