Thursday, August 25, 2016

Farm-to-Table with Page County Grown

This year's Page County Grown farm-to-table dinner was on August 13 at the Mimslyn Inn - we've been hunkered down with the hops harvest and I didn't get to post about it yet.  In fact as I write this I'm about to head over to the farm to do some more packing, but first I'll get caught up on the dinner today.

Mary and I have been attending the dinner since 2011 - although that first year she stayed home because of a storm.  It's really one of the center pieces of the summer social season out here in the Valley - an opportunity to enjoy a well-prepared dinner, shared with friends, in a pretty wonderful setting.  I look forward to it every year.

When it was first organized, Page County Grown coupled the dinner event with a farm tour.  However, for the last few years, the tour has been scheduled to coincide with the Page County Century bicycle ride.  Last year Hawksbill Hop Yards partnered with Public House Produce at David and Heather's farm to form a stop on the tour.

So that's a brief history of the event, now back to the dinner.  This year, chef Chris put together a five course dinner, shown on the menu to the right.  After a cocktail hour the diners all made their way to circa '31, the Mimslyn's upstairs dining room.

Each of the courses includes a locally-sourced ingredient and we are fortunate to have a couple of proteins available.  Lamb was featured in the first course, prepared in a terrine.  It was an eye-opening preparation for me - I'll grill lamb when the mood strikes, and Mary has some wonderful recipes for roasts - I guess I'm always surprised by some alternative approach that comes together for this dinner.

Course two was the eggplant and green tomato stack - done up with panko and a corn relish.  It made for a nice vegetable pause in the festivities, and preceded what is one of my favorites - the pasta course.

This year's pasta course did not disappoint by a long shot.  It was a sweet corn ravioli - I've got a photo of it below.

Last year the restaurant in my office building featured a sweet corn ravioli lunch plate during the summer.  Alas, that chef left and the special did not return this summer.  I really enjoyed that one and had it a couple of times.

Everyone at my table liked chef Chris's version - I think this was the quietest moment of the evening while we all dug in.

There is traditionally a palate cleanser between these warm-up courses and the main course.  This year, that was a frozen concoction made of local berries.  Now we were set up for the braised beef - featuring a roast from Skyline Premium Meats - and our friends the Burners.

For a couple of years running there was a barbeque contest in Page County, and I was one of Jared Burner's pit crew.  So just before the main course rolled out I went over to talk with Jared about the potential of getting our team back together for some competitions in the future.  We still might - but that will take a little planning, so it was back to the dinner.

The roast was simply top notch, and plate had all the complements you might expect with a beef dish.  Another quiet moment at our table while we enjoyed the course.

And finally, desert, which again featured local berries, this time plump, juicy blackberries.

One of the things that sets this event off for me is that the meal includes wine pairings from Wisteria, our neighbors Sue and Moussa in the Valley.  We had tastings of the Chardonnay, Seyval, Viognier, Petit Verdot, and Velvet - this last a rose blend.  Everything hit the mark in this well coordinated presentation.

Personally, I asked for a refill on the Petit Verdot, due to my great thirst.

As the evening came to an end, Mary and I found ourselves a little sad that the 2016 version had come to an end.  We'd simply run out of courses this time.  Even so, we knew that we had the 2017 event to look forward to - you can bet we'll be back!

Monday, August 22, 2016

Drying and Packing @hawksbillhops

A few Cascade cones from Lot 2.
Since David and the crew had worked a couple of days last week to get our crop in, my job was left to do: remove the dried hops from our oast - the HOP-N-ATOR 4000 - and package them for storage.  (The link in this sentence leads to a 2015 harvest post where we designed and built the oast.)

The team had harvested three rows of our Cascades, about 180 plants in all.  We still have two rows to go, and we'll harvest them in a week or so.  We may be pushing it for timing on these last 120 hills, but it is what it is, our schedules are not cooperating with the later harvest his year.

Here's about half of Lot 1, just out of the HOP-N-ATOR 4000.
Based on feedback we had received from Virginia Tech last year, we made a few changes to our process.  I've already posted about the dry mass test we did to ensure we picked at optimal times.  Next, we decided we would dry the hops a bit longer this year in a quest for optimal moisture - extending their time in the oast from 24 hours to 48 hours.

All I have to go on for now is memory, but it did seem to me that the hops are dryer this year than last.  The crew got a few more leaves and stems mixed in as well, but I kept an eye out for these and cleaned as many as I could as I went.

The hops are weighed and packed into 8 oz. bags.
Once the hops come out of the HOP-N-ATOR 4000, I weigh them into 8 ounce packs using standard vacuum bags that we buy in bulk.  We considered getting better bags and even flushing them with nitrogen to remove the oxygen prior to filling them with hops, but we'll wait a bit before investing in that upgrade.

This is probably the most time consuming part of the harvest using the process we have now.  We have some ideas for upgrades, but it is likely a couple of years before we are able to do them.

Lot 2 - finished product, about 14 pounds of Cascade.
Each of the 8 oz. bags are then vacuum-sealed using one of the very basic machines you can get at Wal-Mart or elsewhere.  Because of the bulkiness of the cones once they are dried, I will assist the machine to get all the air out by pressing down on the bags.  This year they are all flat, more or less 12x16 packages, which should be easy to store.

Last year they were somewhat an odd shape due to the pleated bags we were using.  This added a little complexity to the vacuum process as well, so it took a frustratingly long time.  This year I completed both lots in about 4 hours total, while it took three times that long last year.

At the end of the day, we had a total of around 28 pounds of dried Cascade.  Most of them are in 8 oz bags, but I did make a total of 10 4 oz. bags for home brewers.  I have a plan to distribute some of the crop this year to our buyers from last year, but we're saving the bulk of it to use in Hawksbill Brewing Company recipes.

I think I've written about this already, but just in case, a final thought for today.  We grow Cascade, Columbus, Chinook, Goldings, and Fuggles.  This year the Goldings and Fuggles were a disappointment; we didn't even string the Goldings, so we need to think about the way ahead for these two varieties.

The Chinook and Columbus were pretty spotty for us as well - we have 180 and 120 plants of these two varieties.  Although we didn't harvest them, because we wanted to leave the leaf cover up in the sun for a few extra weeks to build plant strength, my guess is less than 20 percent of the bines made it up their strings.

All this leads to thinking about next year.  We may end up plowing under a couple of the underperformers and replacing them with Cascade.  It does really well in our yard and throughout Virginia.  Maybe we just face the music and make a hard decision.

More to follow!

Friday, August 19, 2016

The Harvest Begins @hawksbillhops

To reach the tops of the bines, which ranges from 9 to 16
feet in our yard, we use this cage mounted on the
fork lift apparatus on David's tractor.

David had planned for the harvest to begin this week.  There is a lot going on in Luray over the next few months, and some of the produce crops are ready for harvest too, so we were pulling the trigger if we were close to optimal dry mass.  It was good luck that the results of our second test showed that the hops were in the zone - 25% dry mass, so the plants were ready!

To begin the picking, David and a couple of the guys head out into the hop yard with the tractor and our lift.  The lift is made from a repurposed stock tank - we took out the plastic liner and left the metal container cage.  This is mounted to a pallet so that it can be lifted by the tractor.

A harvest crew member goes up in this bucket and cuts away the bines from the trellis.  From there, we have someone stationed on the ground to collect them on a trailer.  Then they are pulled over to the pole barn for picking by the ShenPaCo team.
Here's 78 pounds of wet hops, fresh from the 2016 harvest!

Hops picking is a focused, but fun, activity.  Last year we organized an event around it, and we will likely do that again in the future, but we couldn't make that work this year with everything that is going on in town.

At the end of the day, David told me they'd picked two rows of hops, and we had yielded 78 pounds.  The remaining three rows appear to have more hops than this on them, so we'll see how we do at the end of it all.

The first load went into the oast for drying on Tuesday, and should have been ready to pack on Thursday - I don't have a report back on that yet, but should have something to write about it in my next post, which will be next week!

Stay tuned!

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Second Dry Mass Test @hawksbillhops

David inspected the lupulin in this Cascade cone.
After our first test two weeks ago, David suggested that we wait a week to test the dry mass of the Hawksbill Hop Yards Cascades again last weekend.  So I went out to gather another 100 gram sample that I could dry to see if we were finally ready to harvest.

Half of the sample for this dry mass test.
As I mentioned, we are only harvesting the Cascade this year - while we had a showing in the Chinook and Columbus, we had nothing to speak of from the Goldings and the Fuggles.  We'll have a closer look at what to do about the other varieties over the winter, but one thing is clear:  the Cascades are thriving!  We have five rows of them - about 300 plants.

Just like last week, I put the sample in the dehydrator and ran it for 24 hours to evaporate all the moisture away.  This week, I turned the temperature up to 135 degrees, warmer than we would process them at, but I wanted to be sure to drive out all the moisture.  At the end I weighed the hops to determine the dry mass.

The results were right on the money - 25 grams.  So our dry mass is at 25%, in the zone, and we were ready to harvest.

Final results of the second test - 25% dry mass!

And that's a good thing - most of the activities related to the harvest must be scheduled in advance, and we had estimated that it would be this week.  Our ShenPaCo crew was standing by, and David had the picking area set up under the barn - and the Hop-N-Ator 4000 was reassembled and ready for testing as well.

David has sent me some photos of harvest activities and I'll post them tomorrow.  We're really looking forward to seeing how the bines did this year, their second year!

Friday, August 12, 2016

Stonyman in Summer

Mary's cousin was down for a visit for a week or so, and after a few days in Alexandria we headed to the Valley for the weekend.  It's summer, so there's a spate of outdoors activities scheduled for any given Saturday and Sunday - of course we took those in.

At the end of her stay there was one thing left on the to-do list and we decided to go up into Shenandoah National Park to take in some views and to enjoy the cooler temps at altitude.  We chose the interpretive trail at Stonyman, a 1.5 mile loop with about 350 feet of elevation gain.

That qualifies it as an easy day hike, certainly, but this remains one of my favorites, and I have done it some dozen times, in all seasons.

Even though it was Sunday, the trail was not crowded as it can get.  We weren't the only folks at the main summit, so after a few minutes there we walked down the horse trail to the other outcropping, and we had that spot to ourselves.

I took this photo looking northwest out onto the Valley below, Luray is just visible in the mid-ground, with Massanutten Mountain behind.

With the hike behind us, we headed back to Hawksbill Cabin for some lunch and then it was back to the city - and ultimately our trip to NYC, which I posted about last week.