Ramble On

Thursday, August 27, 2015

The 2015 Hops Harvest @hawksbillhops - Part 6 (finale)

Finally, the last day of our week-long harvest had arrived.  All the activities we had left to complete were the final lot of oasting and packaging two rows of the Cascades.  Before getting to work on that, I took a walk over to the hop yard for a look at it now that all the hops had been taken down.   
We decided to leave the Fuggles and Goldings rows up for the rest of the growing season.  We know there is demand for these varieties, but the plants definitely need another year to strengthen and adapt to our region.  Hopefully they'll benefit from additional sun and time so that we'll see enough cones on them next year to have a first harvest.

Here's a photo of the hops we harvest and packaged -
totaling around 50 pounds - now they're off to brewers!
From the Chinook, CTZ/Columbus, and the first two lots of Cascade hops, I pulled an eight ounce sample for testing at the Virginia Tech lab.  We were pleased with the results - they were in line with expectations and the commercial ranges - and since the lab included a moisture assessment, we have the info we need to refine our oasting process for next year.  It's great to have this asset in the community!

Incidentally, here are our alpha/beta results for the three varieties we harvested this year:

  • Cascade (average of two lots):  alpha 6.65%, beta 3.74%
  • Chinook:  alpha 8.84%, beta 2.39%
  • CTZ/Columbus:  alpha 13.23%, beta 3.52%
Our final  yield of hops across these three varieties was about 50 pounds.  We packed them as one-pounders for the craft brewers we are marketing, and 4-oz packs for home brewers.  More on the marketing in a moment, because I want to mention a funny story that happened during the packaging.

We'd been working in David and Heather's garage on this process for the duration of the week.  On Tuesday afternoon, Heather had put some spare concert tickets up for sale on Craigslist, and the eventual buyer came around to pick them up while David and I were in the middle of packaging the hops.

As you can see in the photo of our final product, this activity appears suspicious, since we're handling green plant material and packaging it in bulk - not to mention there is a lot of it.  

So the buyer comes into the garage and asks for Heather.  After a moment, he notices the bags of green product all around us - his eyes grew big as saucers before he turned to knock on the door and ask for her!

Over the course of the growing season we'd had some visits from brewers, and I had done a few other outreach activities to let everyone know about our first harvest.  Once I had the lab results and quantities, I did some follow-up activities.  

Soon we had orders from five craft breweries in Virginia, and we've also sold to home brewers in Florida, California, Pennsylvania, and Virginia!  Needless to say, our success at selling the hops far exceed anything I expected.  I can't wait to hear that they've got their beers ready and on tap - I hope to be able to make a visit to each one to celebrate!

So this post concludes the series on our first harvest at Hawksbill Hop Yards.  What a great and unique insight being a hops farmer gives to the craft brewing industry!  We have some expansion and improvement plans for the hop yard this fall and next spring, and then we'll get started again on the whole thing.

It's been a lot of fun, even though it was hard work the whole way.  But to be honest, I can't wait until next year!

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The 2015 Hops Harvest @hawksbillhops - Part 5

Here's a tray of Cascades, ready for sampling and
packaging - bowl and scale in the foreground.
Thanks to David Sours for this photo -
working late into the evening to package
our first batch of dried hops!

By the second day of drying and packaging, the activities had settled into a routine.  Once we loaded the HOP-N-ATOR 4000 with fresh wet hop cones, and ensured they were distributed evenly, we closed up the machine and turned on the heater and fans to get things going.  (Our first batch had taken 30+ hours to dry, so we improved the machine with a little space heater - we'll probably upgrade this part of the operation next year!)

Here's a few Cascade cones that I tore apart for
inspection after they'd been dried.
The goal of drying the cones - or Oasting, as it is traditionally called - is to reduce the moisture in the raw plants so that they become more stable and easier to store and handle.  The industry standard for this is around 8% moisture, so if the assumption is the plant materials are 10% of the originally weight, you're after getting the wet cones down to 18% or so of their original weight.

This seemed to me to be an excellent application of those operations management classes I loved in business school...in fact I was a tutor for this subject!  So I devised a "statistical process control" method for taking periodic samples of the hops to determine our drying progress.  I developed a formula for setting a target weight (there was an error in the one I used, so we didn't get all the way down to 18% - plus the lab informed me that no one in Virginia was quite getting there, likely due to our humid climate).

I used the bowl shown in one of the photos as the standard volume to weigh - setting the original weight with a sample from each of the HOP-N-ATOR 4000 trays.  After averaging this, I calculated a target rate by using an interval formula (note that this is where the error in my calculations crept in).  Then I pulled a sample or two from each of the trays every few hours to measure progress, and to estimate the remaining drying time.

This wheat beer from @boulevard_beer became my
refreshment of choice during hops drying.  Our operation is
too small to supply them, though (I asked).
This worked well and added some much needed predictability to the process.  Even though we didn't quite get to the 18% weight target, we did manage to get the Cascades into the range of 26-28% which is pretty close.  It's enough to stabilize the hops, and now that the harvest is a few weeks behind us we've gone ahead and moved them into the freezer as well.

The next post will be the final in this series.  I'll post the alphas and betas we achieved on our inaugural crop, talk about yields, and also will discuss some of the improvements we have in mind for next year.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

The 2015 Hops Harvest @hawksbillhops - Part 4

Thanks to our 15 or so volunteers who came out to pick for us -
and many of them in their t-short "uniform"!
Along with all the preparation we had been doing for the upcoming harvest, we were starting to see a few queries about the possibility of having a harvest event for the hops.  We'd had a wonderful time at spring planting (here) so it definitely sounded like a good idea - so we began to plan for fitting it in on the Saturday of our harvest week.

We did a few fun things to organize this, including a Facebook event page - we named it "Harvest Daze", for example - and I started looking for a nice swag opportunity for the volunteers that might show up.  Eventually, we settled on the ubiquitous pint - or shaker - glass that is often used to serve draft beers.  There's a photo below.

No good volunteer deed at Hawksbill Hop Yards
goes unswagged!
We had great weather that day, and we had 15 or so volunteers join us for the fun.  Picking is one of the harder tasks on the farm, since the hops cones are so small and there are so many of them. This is one of the reasons we see a lot of folks going after the big European harvesters...I'm not sure we're in the market for that yet, although eventually we'll probably add some kind of machine to the mix.

By now, as you can see in the photo of the volunteers, we'd figured out how to house the activities under the pole barn, so everyone worked in the shade.  David, Grayson, and I had gone out to the field earlier to cut down a full row of Cascades for everyone to work on - the one featured in this post.

Back when I was reading up on what it would take to build a hops farm, there were notes that on average it takes 45 minutes to pick a bine clean...someday I'll do the math to see what our average was, but I don't think we saw that in our first year, for sure.  Even so, the cheerful volunteers working with us made it through the 60 bines in less than three hours.  It was a good time.

We really have enjoyed the community support we received this year - including all the volunteer hands we benefited from in our two events.

In my next post, the second-to-last in this harvest series, we'll take a look at the packaging operation we put together for the crop.

Friday, August 21, 2015

The 2015 Hops Harvest @hawksbillhops - Part 3

Here's a look at some fresh hops - right from the field!
As the harvest progressed on Day 2, we were finding that we had plenty of CTZ/Columbus and Chinook cones.  I took a few highlight photos to show them off, comparing them to my car keys, for example - as with the Cascade cones in the first photo here.

This photo was taken from the trailer bed early in the morning.  Our approach was to go out and take down the bines for each day's work early, before the heat of the day got up.  The quality of hops can suffer pretty quickly if that heat isn't managed - fortunately we had some cooler days, and a light rain on one or two of them, which actually worked in our favor, even if it was somewhat uncomfortable.

A couple of team members loading the HOP-N-ATOR 4000.

Once all of the hops were picked off of the bines, we'd take the produce crates and store them in the farm's walk-in cooler until we had all of the variety for that day.  I mentioned the haul from day 2 - which was about 32 "wet" pounds from the CTZ/Columbus and the Chinook, but on each of the remaining 3 picking days we had a similar amount from the Cascade rows.

We took two of those rows on Friday, one on Saturday - the day of our harvest event, which I'll write about in the next post - and the final two on Monday.  It's not just that we had so many rows of Cascade - these bines are well suited to the US climate and have proven to do well in Virginia, so they were simply bountiful.

Dried hops, fresh from the HOP-N-ATOR 4000.
After the day's picking was done, we'd take the crates from the walk-in and load the hops into the HOP-N-ATOR 4000.  In the second photo, David and one of the SPI crew has loaded the bottom tray of the HOP-N-ATOR 4000 with about eight pounds of wet hops.  We loaded each of the trays this way, and then turned on the fans to start the drying process.

The final photo of the day has David showing off the dried hops after their stint in the HOP-N-ATOR 4000.  While our machine did not dry the hops to an optimal 8% moisture, we did manage to get them down to 28% or so.  That's enough to stabilize them so they'll retain their potency a few months, and we will handle them by freezing what we don't quickly sell, in order to ensure their quality.

The moisture percentage is a factor we'll work on next year, along with ensuring we can handle the harvest quantities we expect from the maturing bines.  As we make progress on those ideas, I'll add some posts - but it will probably be in the winter.  Meanwhile, the next post will be about our volunteer harvest event, which we called "Hawksbill Hops Harvest Daze!"

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The 2015 Hops Harvest @hawksbillhops - Part 2

Grayson was up in the bucket, with David
driving, as we took the bines down from
the trellis.
The second day of the harvest dawned bright and early enough.  Well, that is, it dawned bright and early enough for David and Grayson, who were out working the field for an hour or so before I showed up!  But at last I did - by the way, at the scheduled time, so I wasn't late.

Our plan was to work on the CTZ/Columbus rows first, since they were the first to have cones.  In fact, there were ripe cones on this row as early as July 4, so I wanted to get them down soonest.

Here are the first few CTZ/Columbus bines
as we began taking them down.
Although we modified the set up when we moved to the Cascade rows, on this day of picking, we had the bucket set up with the tractor so that Grayson could cut the bines down from the top of the trellis, and the trailer was behind the old truck where I could take the bines after they were down.

We'd gone ahead down the row to cut the plants at two to four feet high so that we could keep Grayson moving up there while I hauled the cut bines off to the trailer.  When we changed the set up, it was simply to put the trailer behind the tractor so that we didn't have to keep moving the truck to keep up with everything.

Here's the SPI crew at work picking CTZ.  Still early in
the process - we had the bines stockpiled on the trailer.

With only two rows each of CTZ/Columbus and Chinook, and with each these bines producing less than the Cascades, we quickly made our way through the two varieties.  Our thought was to get our SPI crew, shown in the photo to the left, started on the CTZ so they could get the hang of what we wanted them to do before they got to the more productive Cascade, which would be on Friday.

We set them up on one of the long produce tables and the team got to work picking, putting the cones into produce baskets.  Once they finished a bine, they put it on the floor and either I or somebody else came around to put them in a discard pile - we'll compost the waste for this year.

Here's our first bin of hops - about four pounds "wet."

To the right in the photo of the SPI crew is a crate of sweet corn and some flats of tomatoes - on Thursday, one of David's Public House Produce customers comes by for a pick up.  When those items were gone on Friday, we were able to put the trailer in that spot and do all the work in the shade of the pole barn.

The team made their way through the first variety by late morning, so we went back into the field to bring in the Chinook crop, which they set out on after lunch, and finished by the end of the day.

Our haul on these two varieties was a total of about eight bins, which weighed about four pounds each - 32 pounds "wet" total.  We'd take these over to the HOP-N-ATOR 4000 next, so that we could dry them, and that's where the next post will pick up.

Monday, August 17, 2015

The 2015 Hops Harvest @hawksbillhops - Part 1

Here's a row of Cascades, ready for harvest.
All season long, as we watched those hops bines we planted last May grow, I was planning to take a week off for the harvest.  And even though I knew that as first year plants, the yields wouldn't be as much as they will be in a couple of years, it's fair to say that we were pleasantly surprised by how well the crop did - and I needed just about every hour of the six days I took off to get the crop in.

Our plan for oasting.
So on Wednesday morning I got up early enough to drive out from Alexandria to Luray - a drive that was surprisingly pleasant, heading out in the opposite direction of most DC area commuters.  I enjoyed the early morning views of my short cut from I-66 to Shenandoah National Park, then up and over the mountain into Luray, arriving in just about two hours flat.  When I got to the farm, I quickly found David and we began discussing what needed to be done about these hops - we could get started as soon as the CSA shares were put together.

The first thing on my mind was building an oast - the heated air dryer that is used to dry the hops.  We'd talked about this process a number of times over the growing season, but now the rubber was hitting the road and we needed to get out there and actually do it.  David sketched out a straightforward design on the CSA board, and we headed over to the co-op for the lumber and materials we needed.

The finished oast - the HOP-N-ATOR 4000!
We built a simple frame and then fit some shelves with bins into it.  It is modeled somewhat on the design the University of Vermont extension has on their website, although we did make some changes - for example, theirs is an eight-shelf design, while ours is a four-shelf design, and theirs conducts the air downward through the hops, while ours draws it upwards through them.

We were able to accomplish all this with only one trip to the co-op - no return trips because of some failure of design or bill of materials slip up.  David entrusted me with the use of some of the power tools as well - I didn't hurt myself or him in the process - and we got most of the unit done without any major mistakes.  And plenty of laughs.  

The unit is covered on all four sides with a small opening at the bottom to ensure that the air is drawn in consistently through all of the hop cones resting in the bins.  We recycled four barn fans for the air power, and eventually added a space heater as a heat source.

Additional details - powered by four barn fans.

When all was said and done, we had our oast.  We turned those fans on and watch how the powerful breeze drew through the machine.

It's a good machine, good enough to deserve a name, so we christened it the HOP-N-ATOR 4000, which is named after another utilitarian item that was in use at the farm a few years ago when I was on my internship.

Next year, we may need an upgrade to an eight-shelf unit - the HOP-N-ATOR 8000, and ultimately we could have both of them in operation for the duration of the harvest.  But for now, our first day's work was done - we had our machine, and picking could begin on Thursday morning...as soon as I got to the farm.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Page County Grown - the 2015 Farm-to-Table Dinner

Last Saturday, the Mimslyn Inn hosted the fourth annual Page County Grown farm-to-table dinner.  It's an event we still look forward to every year, so Mary and I made early plans to attend, despite some reservation snafus I hope they can fix before next year.
We were joined by many of our friends, most of whom have also attended the events in the past.  And as always, the dinner chef Chris prepared from fresh local ingredients was a delight.

When I started the hop yards, one of my first objectives was to become a part of Page County Grown.  Since the meetings are held on week nights, I generally am not able to make it out for them, and I get updates from the other members.  This year I was surprised to find out that I was designated the "Director of Marketing and Social Media" - an assignment I have yet to deliver on - and that meant I would have to give some welcoming remarks at the dinner.

I hope what I said was innocuous enough - except for two things:  first, my conclusion was to thank the kitchen and serving staff at the Mimslyn for their flawless performance these four years; and second, I read off the vision statement for Page County Grown, quoted below. 

Page County Grown is thriving family farms driving local food economies and promoting healthy communities where quality farming is a valued heritage and a staple for growth.
From some of the conversations I have had with the other members, there have been some successes over the last few years - there are new farmers and there are new markets.  But there are still opportunities, and I guess my challenge will be to identify those and help the organization take advantage of them. 

I was enjoying myself so much at the dinner, I forgot to take photos of every course as I have done in the past.  So these two are some highlights, the appetizer first course and the dessert last course.  All paired with some favorite wines from Wisteria...it's a treat to look forward to again next year!

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Nature Break at Hawksbill Cabin

I was taking care of some chores on Saturday afternoon and happened to catch a little movement out of the corner of my eye.  It turned out to be this little praying mantis, no more than an inch and a half long.

We get them every year in the gardens at the cabin, sometimes I see them when they're young, but more frequently I see the mature ones, since they're bigger and much easier to spot.  I think this is the smallest one I've seen to date.

I hope it gets its fill of some of our bugs.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Next Week We Harvest @hawksbillhops

We've begun making preparations for the harvest at Hawksbill Hop Yards.  When I look at the plants now, it's hard to believe that it has only been three months since we had our planting event (blog posts here).  Our Cascades are doing especially well, considering they're only in their first year, and we're "hoppy" with the action overo n the Chinook and Columbus/CTZ rows as well.

On Saturday we'll have a harvest event at the farm - we've invited the volunteers who helped with planting to come back out to see how things are doing, and to help with picking the cones.  In the meantime, we're working on our oasting and storage solutions - there is a lot of interest in the hops, and it looks like we'll have a good amount to contribute to the Virginia craft brewers market!

The hop yards shares the farm with Public House Produce, where the tomato season is just getting underway - it reminded me of this old post from 2011.  When I was out at the yard yesterday, I came back around to the pole barn to have a look around, and David had set these out to cure and ripen.  There are several heritage varieties here, including the famous "pineapple."

Our final preparations for the harvest continue - we hope to see all our friends at the farm next weekend!

Monday, August 3, 2015

Returning the Favor @pendruidbrewing

Pen Druid's soft opening on July 31.
 A few weeks back, we had visitors from a couple of breweries out at the hop yards - Pen Druid Brewing, who were on the verge of opening over the mountain in Sperryville, and Tin Cannon, who operate in Gainesville, not too much farther away.  I put up this post - we really had a great day at the farm visiting with these folks and learning that much more about the Virginia Craft Brewing Industry.

Flash forward a few weeks, and here we are with the Pen Druid Brewing soft opening on August 1 - neighbor Dan and I trekked over to have a look around and try some truly crafty beers!  David couldn't join us for the visit, since he and Heather were up in Frederick for a race, but we'll make a plan for a follow-on visit soon.

Enjoying the vibe with the Pen Druid team!

I first learned about this team back in May, during a visit up to Black Hops Farm in Lucketts - somehow I missed posting about that road trip.  I met with Jonathan up there and he showed me around the operation - again, lots of collaboration and creativity going on, and that's an aspect of this whole thing that is really growing on me.

That's really the theme of this brewery, as you can see on the tap board from our visit.  Dan and I sampled all three of the offerings, and got a little tour of the place as well.  We tried the 10 oz. pours of all three beers - doing an "ABV ladder," starting with The Mild Child before progressing through Janis' Southern Wrecker and Suzerain.

Creativity in chalk.  I think Pen Druid is a
good example of what craft brewing is all about.
I'd like to highlight that last one - over the last few years, in my home brewing experience, I'd seen kits that offer combinations of beer and wine, and I had thought I might give one a try over the summer.  That didn't work out for me because of the hop yards schedule, so I was pleased to have a chance to try the one these guys had worked out.

They obtained a chardonnay barrel from one of the nearby wineries and aged this Saison in it.  From the process, this beer picked up some wonderful flavors that are complex and delicious - but still respect the summer's heat - so they are very refreshing.

These barrels are part of the creative process at Pen Druid.
The brothers walked us through their plans to experiment with several beers this way.  There's even a sherry cask in the inventory, and Dan and I agreed we'd look froward to that one!

It's terrific to have this new brewery so close.  I'm looking forward to future visits - and perhaps some collaborations with hops from Hawksbill Hop Yards!

Congrats guys!