Whether a hop yard is configured in the conventional high trellis style or on new low trellis systems, production starts with the planting of new, disease-free hop roots in February through March. The grower hopes that the selection of the planted variety will have commercial value for at least 7 years from date of planting—switching varieties is costly and not done on a whim.
Some varieties will be able to produce a commercially viable crop in the first year though this is exhibited by only a few super-alpha varieties. Even these will take another year to stabilize agronomic production of optimum alpha acid (bitterness) per acre.
The traditional bittering and aroma varieties may deliver a good crop the second Fall after planting but three years is typical to achieve full potential in both yield and brewing quality.
Hops are very energetic—from a clump of emergent green shoots in early May and trained later in the month, the hop bine in a conventional yard will race up a twine over 20 feet long to trellis wire above by the 4th of July. Shortly after, side branching begins on many varieties. Once the female flowers or cones emerge, the energy of the plant is directed to adding vegetation to the cone’s structure. As the cone grows to full size, the resins and oils essential for beer taste and aroma are laid down in specialized structures (lupulin glands) within it.
Cones reach maturity in late August for the aroma crop and harvest is continuous through late September as the old-style bittering then super-alpha hops are brought in. The preparation and nurturing of the crop over the growing period will only be rewarded if harvest is synchronized to each variety’s maturity. Any delay leads to losses of quantity, quality or both.
What kind of hops do we grow?
Well, that is a big question. “Kind” encompasses varietal classification, trellis system and conventional cultivation vs. organic. Here is a quick review of the varieties and growing systems at Roy Farms.
Full Range of Varieties
We produce varieties in every classification: super-alpha, high-alpha, aroma and the latest development—high alpha with unique, desirable aroma properties.
Conventional or Low-Trellis Training Systems
For the current season we have yards of varieties under both high- and low-trellis systems. Moving more acreage from conventional high trellis to the more sustainable low-trellis is an ongoing effort as we learn the adaptation of each variety.
Conventional Pest Management or Organic
An increasing section of the brewery market is looking for organically raised hops and we are working to meet the demand. This, too, represents a learning curve for us as we allocate ground to varietal testing and then commercial development of organic yards. Since we have adopted Integrated Pest Management (the late 1980’s) and then increasing plant pest resistance from increasing soil health (turn of the millennium), our challenges have not been as great as anticipated but there are always things to learn to maximize yield and quality while providing economic return for all stakeholders.
- Cascade Low Trellis
- CTZ Low Trellis
- Mount Hood
- Organic Cascades
- Organic Centennial
- Organic Chinook
- Organic Hallertau
- Organic Nugget
- Organic Sterling
- Organic Summit™
- Summit™ Low Trellis
Are Roy Farms hops traceable back to field origin and chemical treatment?
Back about 10 years ago it became apparent that brewers wanted to know more about food safety issues related to their hops—what chemicals had been applied, how close to harvest they had been applied and more. We were faced with a decision: “Do we assemble this information for selected parts of our market or do we maintain this data as part of serving the entire hop market?”
The answer was easy. We needed to tabulate the information for the safety of farm staff anyway—to observe limits of safe REI’s (Re-Entry Intervals). We knew that the desire of customers for this information would only grow and we had the ability to incorporate the information into our crop management databases... “Why would we NOT make this information a standard part of our product package?”
Traceability and food safety concerns (and data gathering) do not end at harvest, our attention to data gathering and reporting are core elements of assigning harvested crop to inventory and logistical planning for sales.
Integrated Inventory and Logistics
As crop is harvested, it is allocated to specific inventory lines to anticipate market demand by variety, food safety requirements and/or product form (baled hops, hop pellets, etc.)
We have historical information as to when each type of product is likely to be required in the marketplace so it is possible for Roy Farms to dedicate lots at harvest to specific hop processing schedules in order to service the very earliest delivery requirements.
Bines are cut from high-trellis systems, laid in trailers and moved to the picking facility. There, hop cones are separated from the bines via a picking system and sent to hop kilns for drying. The remaining bines, along with stems and leaves sifted from picked cones, are removed to the composting area.
Kilning very gently takes the green hops from moisture of over 70% down to 10-12%. The cones are then moved (very gently again) to a cooling floor to allow for the cones to equalize remaining moisture across the bulk as they cool. The hops may be turned or ventilated on the floor to maximize cooling efficiency and moisture homogeneity.
Once the hops are cool, the most common next step in processing is the compression of the raw hops into bales. Hop cones are so low in bulk density that this "densification" step is required to allow for practical transport to hop dealers/processors.
Because of the tendency of many hop varieties to rapidly degrade, the time constraint from harvest, picking, kilning and through to baling is kept as short as physically possible. Depending upon the variety and crop year this may be as little as 24 hours or as long as 36 hours.
Our hop processing is grounded in three strategic principles:
1. There should be no single point of failure in the system.
- Harvest must move very efficiently in order to capture the peak of quality present in the fresh hop.
To achieve this goal, we have:
- four separate picking installations
- each with its own kilning, cooling and baling equipment
- two separate pellet mills
- a field picking unit for use on our low-trellis hops
2. Facilities and equipment have to be not only fast but easy to clean and present maximum employee safety and the lowest possible risk of quality loss.
- All of our buildings, fixed equipment and rolling stock are state-of-the-art.
- Even those items that are not “new” are constantly refurbished or re-built to the latest standards.
3. Work force stability
Even with all the latest technology, there are a lot of judgment calls that need to be made quickly during harvest and processing.
- Roy Farms meets the challenge by maximizing staff skill and stability. They are engaged in productive jobs throughout the year. That way, we have trained eyes and ears in the right jobs during the critical harvest period.
These three key elements allow us to harvest very efficiently without a “rushed” atmosphere around the harvest process. This allows Roy Farms to focus on providing excellent quality and yield to the marketplace.
Still, our constant contact with brewers led us to believe that there was even more that we could do for the aroma hop user. And, so we did.
Low Temperature Drying of Aroma Hops
Brewers seeking the finest in aroma hops are looking for intact hops, deep green in color and possessed of the maximum depth and breadth of the variety-specific “nose”. Past the effort of careful picking and cleaning, the next step to preserve these traits is to slowly dry the hops at lower temperatures than typical for the bittering hops.
Lower temperatures minimize the potential oxidation of key elements of the aroma profile. Also, the hop cones reach more even moisture distribution during the kilning process rather than waiting to accomplish this at the cooling floor. This allows for raw hops transfer from kiln to cooling and subsequent processes with less shatter, better color and more of the essential oils maintained in “harvest-fresh” condition.
Harvest Fresh Pellets®
Our baling units are set up to perform as gentle a “squeeze” on the hops as possible. We have minimized friction at baler walls, perform multiple fills and presses per bale to allow settling of product, and pay careful attention to maximum weight and compression pressure. Despite this, there will always be some disruption to the lupulin glands in the cone which allow for oxidation of brewing resins and essential oils.
While some brewers prefer a bit of oxidation on their hops as a positive contribution to flavor, a growing part of the aroma market desires as close “green hop” profile as possible. We meet this need by moving the carefully dried aroma hops directly to a pellet mill and bypass baling entirely. This provides for increased preservation of alpha acids and superior aroma profiles.
The pelletizer is configured with a bore size and compression ratio to allow production of outstanding pellets at temperatures below the limit at which oxidation is a problem. Though the pellets are carefully compressed, they still will fit into standard industry boxes for shipment.
The hop market can be very volatile. Supply and demand are not easily forecasted. Current acreage—total and by variety—is generally declining. Many varieties are not widely dispersed in acreage which represents a supply-side vulnerability to the occasional late-season rain, hail and high wind event.
At the same time, many brewers prize stability of the hop blends in their beers as essential components of brand signature. They desire continuity of supply, at quantity consistent with their brand growth and, often enough, staggered over multiple years.
We have responded to that need by working direct with Brewers along with wholesale dealer/distributor organizations to make allowance for contractual supply of most varieties.