Sunday, September 19, 2010

Chemistry and Labor: Sorting at the Hop Harvest

The rains make us think of rot and sorting. Like wine grapes, hops can suffer from fungus, disease, and other pests. The modern quest for efficiency has stressed monoculture, vast tracts of single crops, but loss of diversity (at micro-levels, like genetic, and at macro levels like row-on-row of a single plant variety) rendered the crops even less hardy and increasingly dependent on fertilizer and pesticide.

Over at beervana, Jeff has three notes about organic hops farming (here, here, and here). The farmers growing organic hops will have other ancillary crop material to provide additional biodiversity, and may require more labor-intensive sorting strategies.

The 1933 hop strike was in part a response to increasing chemical levels and increasing demands on sorting.

In this "hops picking portrait," you can see the basket with each individual hop cone - few leaves, vines, or tendrils. Nowadays the hop cones are sorted mechanically.

Many of the very best wines are produced from grapes picked by hand. Machine harvesting can bruise the fruit, and the gentle processes of hand picking and hand sorting will yield the highest quality, intact fruit. During a rainy harvest this can mean the difference between a good wine and an average or even defective wine made with diluted or rotten grapes.

The quality of individual hops may not be as critical to making beer as the quality of grapes - as a proportion of the total beverage, hops are a much smaller ingredient. Still, the ideas of beer terroirs grow and mature, it might be that the very best beers will be made from organic and hand-harvested hops.

In any event, the cool summer and rainy fall will make harvest more exciting than most farmers will like. We toast farmers and harvesters: Prost!

(Hops Portrait: Oregon State Library)

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