In this first installment of The Beer Bus Bavarian Purity Law Series, we introduce HOPS.

You’d have to be living under a rock to not be at least a bit loopy for lupulin these days. No matter where you are (and, especially in North America), breweries have leapt into brewing intense, hoppy (for lack of a better term—we mean bitter, citrusy, piney, resiney, herbal…) beers that ramp up the IBUs in order to satisfy today’s beer drinkers’ desire for high-alpha acid wonders!

But while you sit back and shake and rattle your bones with an offering that surely Ninkasi would be intrigued by, have you ever considered what exactly the mighty hop is that gives your bold IPA its signature flavour? Aside from knowing that our mighty Humulus lupulus is a tall vine bine closely related to the cannabis family of plants with beautifully bitter, aromatic and bold cones, few can tell you much about how this wonderful crop is harvested and the magic behind its many qualities.

In order to satisfy our very own curiosity about the hop, The Beer Bus spent some time visiting Laurie and John at Clear Valley Hops in Nottawa last summer to get an insider’s look at the annual harvest and pelletizing of this wonderful plant! Clear Valley Hops is a 74 acre hops farm that is fed by the waters of the Pretty River, giving the land a very unique terroir of flavours that come out in unique notes like lemon vanilla in their Kent Golding, orange and fruit in the Willamette, and great alpha acids in the Wild Turkey.

My tour started with Laurie showing me around the harvest barn, which is attached right next to the custom built oast that naturally dries the annual harvest. Inside the barn, John and Lindsay were operating the giant 1979 German-made and imported Wolf hop picking machine by loading the freshly cut down hop bines, one at a time. The machine is a beast: about as tall as a very large zamboni and many times as loud.

Oast House

View from the top of the Oast

With the Wolf howling in the background, Laurie explained to me how it worked and showed me the machine’s outlet pipe, around the back of the barn. Here, a constant rush of green shoots out of a pipe and forms a giant pile of “everything but the hop”, as Laurie says. She mentions that this pile is later composted, so nothing is wasted.

As the hop machine pulls apart the hops from its sturdy bine, the delicate flowers are transported up towards the oast house to naturally dry. The cones are stunningly beautiful, and Laurie explains that they can also be very dangerous! She explains that the natural oils (lupulin) in the hop can be quite irritating, and for the workers especially. Laurie shows me how to properly grind the hop between my hands–cup my hands and gently sniff–to get the true aroma qualities of the hop (in my case, the Magnum varietal). Clear Valley Hops pelletizes their crop, to ensure it lasts long and stays fresh.

The oast house at Clear Valley Hops is quite remarkable. Laurie explains to me that her and John refused to do it any other way, and had their oast built to specs from true English designs. She explains how her oast house is a square, and built according to the style of the Kent District (and not circular like those in Sussex District did!). The oast is topped off with a rotating cowl, which turns with the wind and allows the hot air from the small propane heater to consistently flow over the drying hops.

The oast house has a very interesting history. Laurie explained how during World War Two, the white cowls of oasts throughout the UK were visible beacons for approaching German aircraft. In response, the UK Government ordered all oast house owners to paint their cowls (the rotating top!!) black to not be as visible to any enemy eyes above. Apparently, the traditional hop farmers were very unhappy with this and all cowls were painted back to white shortly after the war ended.

As Laurie walks me through her vast property towards where the boys were harvesting, she explains how she’d love to see an experience to be built around her property and beautiful hops. Laurie believes that the true craft beer lover should at least once a hop farm to discover first hand how amazing this little plant is!

Clear Valley Hop Farm

Snipping the bottom of the bine

As we ride the tractor over the Pretty River and towards the other half of Clear Valley’s acreage, I can see the guys doing their thing. Dustin is walking down the long rows of hops and cutting the bottom of the bine. The idea is that now Paul will drive the tractor alongside Pat, who will clip the top of the bine, while strategically laying it down in the wagon. In the video, you can hear Pay yell “centre!!” to indicate which part of the pile it belongs in! This involves a lot of coordination in order to get it just right so that John and Jessica at the Wolf can easily load the bines into the machine, without any tangles!

These cut bines are then sent over to the Wolf Barn, where they are carefully unloaded from the wagon and onto the floor by the Wolf. It was truly remarkable seeing this process unfold and my appreciation for every truly craft beer I’ve ever has increased ten fold! The bines are clipped in and like magic, little hop cones are spit out.

For every IBU that the wondrous hop plant can contribute to, this miracle plant also has many other benefits beyond just bittering and providing aromas to our favourite libation! As we walked along the rows of hop bines, Laurie explained to me how hops can be used as a natural sedative/calming agent, and how before the days of machines like the Wolf, hop cones were harvested by hand, one by one, and all the lupulin build up on workers’ hands would actually put them to sleep in the fields! The plant can apparently also be used to treat arthritis, fibromyalgia, insomnia, diabetes, and menopausal symptoms.

Laurie points out how quickly the connection between farm to pint can be forgotten, and both her  and her husband/business partner John firmly believe that everyone should know what exactly goes into their favourite craft pint, and the passion that everyone at Clear Valley Hops exudes was truly contagious. It was awesome to see the passion and amount of work behind every sip of great, local craft beer.

The Beer Bus is very excited to announce that later this summer, we’ll be hosting a VERY special, intimate evening dinner right with the hops at Clear Valley. We’ll have a beer-paired dinner catered by our good friends at Oliver and Bonacini, underneath Edison bulbs strung overhead. Stay tuned for more details, friends.