The harvest began on Aug. 31. Before a week had gone past, it was over.
This harvest is a relatively new feature in Delta County’s familiar annual cycle of sowing and gathering.
It’s the harvest of the local hops crop.
The harvest began with work on four acres of the crop that were planted two years ago near Hotchkiss, at Leroux Creek Foods owned by Ed Tuft. This was Tuft’s first harvest from his four acres, and prices are said to be good for the organically grown hops at Tuft’s farm, and that other local growers produced this year.
Hops are used as a flavoring and stabilizing agent in beers, and are also used in other beverages and in some herbal medicine preparations. But it is for their role in beer making that these female flower clusters of the humulus lupulus are best known today.
Hops are credited with providing an amazing variety of beneficial effects to the beer brewing process. The sweet flavor of the malt in beer is balanced by the hops with a mild bitterness in various ways that impart different flavors and aromas to the brewer’s final products.
Hops are also credited with providing an antibiotic influence to the brew which allows the effects of brewer’s yeast to take preference over other microorganisms. One authority notes that hops may have first gained popularity for brewing centuries ago when people discovered that beverages made with it kept for longer periods without spoilage.
The hops vines at Leroux Creek Foods are grown on 18-foot-tall trellises that Tuft fabricated from drill stem and placed in long rows. The trellises are strung with wire, and the vines are trained onto cords of twine that run from the wire to the ground. Tuft’s four-acre hops yard is set amid the farm’s expansive organic orchards.
Hops can be furrow irrigated as on Tuft’s farm, or with a drip system as Paonia grower Glen Fuller does it at his Rising Sun Farms on Grange Road.
Harvesting the ripened hops involved trips through the hops yard with workers removing the entire vine, along with the twine cord, by hand and placing them on a trailer.
On the first day of the local hops harvest last month, Tuft had a German made hops combining machine, called a hops picker, at work on his place. The hops vines, after being cut from their trellis supports, are fed by hand into the trailer-mounted machine which separates the delicate seed cone fruit, called strobiles, from the vines.
Tuft’s hops picking machine is a story in itself. It is almost 40 years old and has been completely rebuilt and rewired. To get the massive device to America from overseas it had to be partially disassembled and literally cut in half with an acetylene cutting torch to fit in a standard shipping container. Though the machine is big, there are much bigger ones in use for commercial hops growing operations elsewhere in the U.S.
Under the hot sun of the harvest’s first day there were some extra hands available to help with the work. They were two private pilots from Denver and the owner of a Longmont micro brewery.
The first fruits of this harvest were being sacked in burlap and driven immediately to Grand Junction where two Cessnas were waiting on the tarmac to be loaded.
From there, the fresh hops were destined for a quick flight over the mountains, and then straight to Longmont and into the waiting brew vats.
Fresh hops, particularly Delta County’s organically grown hops, are highly prized by micro brewers. They are used fresh from the vine, or “wet,” meaning they haven’t been dried as most of the rest of the harvest will be.
When tasted in the field, fresh hops yield a delicate, unique, slightly tangy, vanilla-and-citrus flavor.
Hops grower Glen Fuller of Paonia was also providing the first fruits of his hops yard this year to the Longmont’s brewery’s supply. Vines from his crop were being harvested in Paonia and trucked to Tuft’s farm near 3100 Road for a processing run through the combine.
This is the first year that Tuft’s picker has been available for local growers to use. Fuller said that a similar combining machine was brought to this area from the Pacific Northwest region for last year’s local hops harvest. The Northwest is where tens of thousands of acres of hops are grown commercially for the major beer brewers.
Delta County’s hops crop probably totals less than 50 acres, Fuller and Tuft estimate. There are only a few people growing them here. Fuller adds that even at just 50 acres, this area’s contribution to the total organic output of the crop nationwide is significant. A four-acre hops yard could yield enough of the prized flavoring agent to make a few million gallons of beer he estimates.
While some of the first fruits of the harvest were taken immediately for use, most of the crop is dried. This year, workers at Tuft’s farm were putting the finishing touches on construction of a large dryer. The dryer consists of a long conveyor enclosed by a translucent fiberglass shelter and vented with large fans.
After the seed cones are “picked” from the vines by the combining machine, they are placed on the slow-moving conveyor for 12 hours as the first step in their processing and packaging, destined eventually for enjoyment by true beer connoisseurs.
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