31 Aug One Homebrewer’s Quest for Fresh, Indiana Hops
As a fan of craft beer and a homebrewer with almost a decade of brewing under my belt, I have, to put it mildly, grown fond of hops. I’ve used them in almost every way you can imagine–from first wort, to dry hop, to whirlpool additions, to adding them directly to the mash. However, there is one way I have never been able to enjoy hops, but I have always wanted to try. Fresh.
At your local grocery store you have probably noticed Octoberfest and Pumpkin ales already starting to dominate the shelf space. However, on tap at a brewery near you, there is a special seasonal beer that is ready to make its appearance. The wet hop beer.
Sometimes called a “fresh hop “ beer, this is one of the last true seasonal beers. Hop harvests happen in late August and last for only a few short weeks. And while most of the harvest is dried, pelletized and vacuum sealed for future use, there are a few breweries out there who will make a wet hopped beer. That is, a beer made with fresh picked hops less than 24 hours old.
I love a wet hop beer. They offer a unique flavor experience, even from hops to which you are already accustomed, and I have always wanted to try my hand at making one. So, after doing some research on hop farms in Indiana I decided to reach out to a few and see if they would mind if I came out and picked some fresh hops and got a tour around the farms once the harvests came in.
Three of these farmers responded very enthusiastically and were happy to have me out. So, a couple of weeks ago, I took a road trip up to Crown Point to visit Howe Farms, followed by a short run down to DeMotte Indiana where I toured Cone Keepers Hop Yard, wherein I then I finished it up at Indy High Bines on the Southside of Indianapolis.
While a road journal of my travels around the state might be entertaining to some, I’ll skip those stories for now and focus, instead, on the farms and farmers.
Howe Farms sits at the end of a back road. I arrived around 10:00 AM, but Steve Howe and his family were already hard at work pulling in their harvest of Cascade. After offering me a beer (a delightful Route 2 brew called Munky Junk which uses their hops) Steve took me on a tour of the farm.
Howe Farms Gallery
Of the three hop farms I visited, Howe was the largest at 2.5 acres. As we toured around the bines I got my first look at actual hops. Having only seen them pelletized, or maybe in leaf form to this point. Steve showed me his Chinooks, and we pulled a couple off of the bines to rip open and see the lupulin inside. The aroma was fantastic–pine, grapefruit, yet also very floral.
After getting a quick tour of the rest of his facility we pulled down some bines and I did my best Lucille Ball impersonation as I helped sort the hops as they came out of the harvesting machine. Then I purchased a pound or so of the fresh Cascades from Steve and headed down to Cone Keepers, about 30 minutes away.
At Conekeepers Justin, the owner, met me outside. As we walked through the bines we talked about specialized hop varieties. Justin grows several interesting types, including Sorachi Ace, which I had specifically driven all that way to purchase. By focusing on these niche hops he hopes to carve out a segment of the ever growing hop market. I think it’s a great plan.
CONE KEEPERS GALLERY
After talking a bit we went to find some good bines for harvesting Sorachi Ace. Now, the main difference between Conekeepers and Howe Farms is each’s method of harvesting. Howe has a tractor with a big platform, and also a hop harvesting machine for picking all the cones of the bines. Justin has a ladder, some shears, and his hands. Also, less effectively, my hands.
We ended up cutting down two bines and brought them into the table for picking. Soon his wife joined us, then other family members started joining the party. It reminded me of the corn shucking gatherings I had as a kid, where my Great Aunt and Uncle would have us out to the farm during harvest.
Conekeepers currently farms 1 acre of hops, but has an additional 1.5 acres waiting for fall plantings. One of the things I learned during this trip is how planting in the fall means strong bines in the spring. Another is that, while hop farming was fun, it wasn’t highly lucrative. Justin is an electrician by trade, and Steve is a teacher. These small farms are very reminiscent of small breweries just getting off the ground, but doing the hard work establishing Indiana as a quality hop location for those who come after them.
After securing my bounty of Sorachi Ace I packed up and started the long drive back to the Southside of Indianapolis. It was a good two hours and I couldn’t help picking up cones every now and then. I was also a little worried about getting pulled over by a local cop who didn’t understand what hops are.
Getting to Indy High Bines (IHB) was the easiest of my trip. They are off of a road I’m familiar with and only about 20 minutes from my house. However, since it was late in the day, it was also my quickest visit.
Bad weather had caused the guys to abandon the harvest the day before, and they were all hands on deck to get some bines pulled down while they could, even getting extra help from Hoosier Hops Farm. IHB clocks in close to 1.5 acres (about 1.3) with plans to expand to 4 acres in the next two years, but the bines were tall and heavy with hops. Like Howe, they also have a harvester and a large platform. However, they also had mud. Lots of it.
Co-owners Ryan and K.C. were gracious enough to take some time and help me pick out some fresh cascades before getting in the truck and attempting to harvest. Things were going good for the first few feet, but after the truck got stuck I realized I might just be in the way. So I said goodbye and went home to start brewing my Three Farmers IPA.
Indy High Bines Gallery
The short harvest season poses a problem for breweries who wish to make a fresh hopped beer because they are at the mercy of the crop. Often they have fermenters and the kettle open and ready, waiting for the phone call from a local hop farmer. When the harvest is ready, it is ready right now. This is why you see pumpkin ales in June, but you will never see a wet hop beer until they’re ready. This is also why if you want to experience one of these glorious monuments to the hop in its natural state, you need to move as quickly as the brewers themselves. Once they’re gone, they’re gone until next year.
Each of the farms I visited is supplying hops to at least one brewer who is using fresh hops in their brews. Indy High Bines sells most of its harvest after being pelletized to Evil Czech Brewery, who recently won Silver at Indiana’s 2016 Bicentenni-Ale competition for their Tulip Tree using IHB hops.
However, they are working with MashCraft, who is making their High P.A. using wet hops throughout the process, even being continuously wet hopped with all of the varieties IHB grows as they become ready for harvest.
Conekeepers Hop Yard also had their hops featured in a 2016 Bicentenni-Ale brew. (The gold medal winners, actually). Pokro Brewing Company entered their Angus, a British Strong Ale which uses dry whole cone Fuggles, and was chosen as the winner by a panel of judges in a blind tasting. They are also using some Conekeeper wet hops for an upcoming brew, so it would be worth your time to take a trip to Griffith, Indiana to check out their selection.
While you’re up there, go ahead and stop by Four Fathers Brewing in Valparaiso. There, if you are lucky, you might find a wet hopped beer made with hops from Howe Farms. If you miss out on that seasonal delight you can always find Howe Hops, who do all of their processing in house, year round, for brews from Four Fathers, Route 2, and occasionally, Crown Brewing.
“But, what about us homebrewers who want to use local fresh hops,” you home brewers might be asking. “Do we need to make a long circuitous journey across the state?” Well, no actually. Great Fermentations, a homebrew shop in Indianapolis, is teaming up with Three Hammers hop farm to bring fresh Cascade hops to you. Just pre-order by September 7th.
You can taste my Three Farmers IPA at the Whitestown Brewfest on September 17th where I’ll have it entered in their prestigious homebrew competition.