We’ve known about Hilltop Hops for a while now, and after seeing last year’s hop harvest boasting visitors from a range of SE Queensland breweries, we knew we wanted to get in on the action. So this year we slid into their DMs to see when/how we could help out and get the opportunity to visit one of Queensland’s only production hop farms.
Reaching out to a couple local breweries we thought also might be interested, we got a ping back from Cheyne and Jarrett, the duo at Happy Valley Brewing Co, who said they’d be keen to come picking with us on a Sunday morning, so we teed it up with Steve and Andrew at Hilltop Hops and went out to pick fresh hops on Sunday, 31 January. After arriving to the farm in Hemant, just outside of Brisbane, we met Steve (we’d actually met Andrew a few days prior during a visit to Hudson Brewing Co, but that’s another story) and, once Jarrett arrived, got an excellent tour of the farm and the drying “shed” out back, and then got into the hard yakka.
Hop picking can be done in a variety of ways, but essentially it boils down to cutting the bine (that’s not a typo; hops grow on bines, which are similar to vines except that they grow upwards, not sideways. The official definition is “A vine climbs using tendrils or suckers. A bine…grows in a helix around a support.”) from where it’s tethered at the top, chopping the bottom, and ripping the whole thing down. From there, it’s all about removing the individual hop flowers, or cones. We used two methods to strip the cones from the bine: hand picking or using the hop stripping machine (fancy terminology, amiright?) which is essentially like the flat part of a wire coat hanger spinning around just fast enough to knock off all the flowers. After a couple hot hours (and a few cold beers), we were done for the day, happy to have experienced the process firsthand and really excited to come back out in May for their autumn harvest^.
Now to the part where we get to use the hops! Jarrett and Cheyne were generous enough to invite us out the following day and see the freshly-picked hops in action, so early Monday morning we headed to Happy Valley to meet up with Jarrett, who got the brewery warmed up and we started running the malt through the mill. As we stirred the good stuff, the entire venue was filled with the aroma of Weet Bix – yum! Once the mashing process was complete, we (and when I say “we” it’s actually referring to Jarrett) began the lautering process, which is slightly unique at HV. The wort was gravity fed through the grant, creating a mesmerizing visual symphony of whirls and colours, before being fed back into the mash tun to repeat the process. Once this recirculation process finished, we had a nice, clear wort.
Normally the process from here would be to move the liquid into the kettle, bring it to a boil, and add the hops. However, since we were using whole hop cones (or wet hops) Jarrett modified the process (because he’s been doing this a long time and can make those impromptu decisions) by transferring the wort to the kettle to boil, then bringing it back across to the mash tun to add the hops. This is so the false bottom of the tank, usually used to capture the barley husks during lautering, was in place to keep the hop flowers from flowing through the pipes and clogging everything up. Genius! Stir, stir, stir over boiling wort on a hot day to extract the lupulin hiding in the petals, and after a short time – that was it!
Time to transfer again, this time through the heat exchange to bring the temperature down, and into one of the empty fermenters. And now we are all ready for a beer!
We created (I dare not use the term “brewed”, because Matt and I mainly stood around asking Jarrett lots of questions and offering ourselves up for manual labour) a SMaSH, which stands for Single Malt and Single Hop, which – incidentally – won a Bronze Medal at the recent RQFWS Beer Show. It’s unlikely we contributed to that win in any way, but fun to know we were there for its creation!
Has all that reading made you thirsty? Us too – we’re going to raid our fridge for a couple cold ones. Until next time!
Cheers and beers,
Jos and Matt
^As a sidenote, hops normally grow and flower once a year; they require approximately 16 hours of sunlight a day and naturally grow between 35-55* latitude (Oregon, Washington State, Idaho USA; Victoria, Tasmania Australia; South Island New Zealand; UK; Germany) but Steve and Andrew have to manually compensate for the lack of daylight hours by using lights to trick the hops into growing and hibernating. This also means they can run multiple hop harvests each year, since Queensland’s climate doesn’t fluctuate and freeze like in hops’ natural habitats.