Growers at VQH Farms use their years of experience and specialized equipment to harvest hops during the proper window
By Jackie Clark
Hops growers in Ontario are beginning harvest of one of the key ingredients that gives beers their taste and aroma. At VQH Farms in Eden, Ont., the team grows more than five varieties to supply breweries across the province.
Growers have three main ways to tell when hops are mature enough for harvest, Curtis VanQuaethem, owner of VQH Farms, told Farms.com.
Producers must learn the first two methods through experience. VanQuaethem can identify maturity by the colour and the smell of the hops.
“Inside of the hop cones, we’re trying to harvest lupulin. That will turn from a light yellow to a darker (yellow) – almost orange – but you don’t want it to get too orange,” he explained. In terms of smell, certain varieties will change from a vegetable-like smell to become more fruity, citrusy, or bitter as they mature.
VanQuaethem also conducts a dry matter test. “I take cones off a plant and I have a moisture meter,” he added.
Most hops management, as well as harvesting, requires specialized or customized equipment.
“For harvesting, you actually take the entire plant off the trellis,” VanQuaethem said. The team at VQH Farms grows hops on 18-foot (5.5-metre) trellises. “What I use to take the whole plant down is basically a forage wagon with a platform at the top.”
The wagon has a walking floor, so he can unload the plants. “We dump them at the harvester,” he added. Many hops harvesters are German machines built in the 1960s and 70s.
“That machine puts the whole vine through. … It gets hooked into the front and then gets pulled through (the machine). Basically, it strips all the leaves and the hops off (the vine). Then, (the machine) uses a combine-like system, like inside a regular combine, … to separate the leaves from the cones. They drop out,” VanQuaethem said.
To store the cones, “we use custom-made boxes. We dry the hops in tobacco kilns,” he explained. “The hops tend to take about 36 hours to dry.”
Growers harvest hops around 18 to 22 per cent moisture in the field, and then dry them down to under 8 per cent moisture.
Farmers must time harvest appropriately to preserve the quality of the hops.
If you harvest too early, you get a grassy or tomato-like smell, VanQuaethem said. If you harvest either too early or too late, “you’ll get low alpha acids. That’s the bittering agent in the hops.”
Alpha acids accumulate up to an ideal range for the given variety, and then start to break down. So, growers have a narrow harvest window to ensure the crop falls in this ideal range.
“Our harvest window is like seven days for one variety,” VanQuaethem said. “I call it the ‘Price is Right’ rules – as close as you can get to the end without going over.”
Ideal conditions for growing hops are “dry and hot. The plants don’t like to be wet all the time, but they like a lot of water. So (hops need) good ground moisture, but without getting rained on all the time because they’re very susceptible to disease,” he explained.
This year, growers faced issues with frost early in the spring.
“The first flush of hops froze right off,” VanQuaethem explained. Some of the varieties grew three weeks behind schedule because of those frosts.
Hope are “photoperiod plants, they do all their growing before the summer solstice,” he added. So, when days get shorter, the plants grow reproductively. Varieties that had a late start don’t achieve as much vegetative vine growth, and some hops didn’t reach the tops of the trellises this season.
Hops growers measure yield in pounds per acre, and the effect of this year’s weather challenges will vary by variety.
“I’ve only got some hops harvested, so I don’t have full numbers. In some varieties, yields will be half as much as normal, and then some varieties will be equal or better,” VanQuaethem said.
Varieties bred from European cultivars tend to suffer more in years like this, as opposed to those cultivars that originate in the Washington area.
European varieties “don’t like big temperature fluctuations,” VanQuaethem explained.
If you happen to be sipping a beverage from Sawdust City Brewing Co., Great Lakes Brewery, or Bobcaygeon Brewing Co. this patio season, you might just be enjoying the taste of hops harvested at VQH Farms.
Алексей Филатов\iStock\Getty Images Plus photo