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Local brewers make harvest beer with Northern California hops

Local brewers make harvest beer with Northern California hops

Re-print of SFGATE article by Jonathan Kauffman published on Monday, August 25, 2014.
Photo: Brian Stechschulte, /

“Hey, Jesse, are you trying to pick all my hops?” calls out Claudia Kuchinski to Jesse Friedman, co-founder of Almanac Beer, who is nose deep in his 40th flower.

Taking a brewer on a tour of a hop farm is not unlike sending a 5-year-old into a strawberry patch. This is the third year Friedman has made the trek to Clear Lake (Lake County), an hour northeast of Calistoga, to visit Claudia and Marty Kuchinski’s Hops-Meister Farm. Friedman is sniffing with purpose: to pick out specific rows to use in Almanac’s 2014 “wet-hopped” beer, a once-a-year specialty made with fresh hop flowers.

Hops-Meister, Northern California’s only independent commercial hop farm, began its 10th harvest last month, just three days before Friedman’s visit. In 2004, Marty says, the couple learned that their property was in what was once one of the most productive hop-growing regions in the country. They began planting a few hop cultivars, teaching themselves to farm as they went, and sold their first crop in 2005. Organic certification came in 2006.

In drought-ridden late July, their 26 rolling acres of vine land look like green towers rising out of a landscape touched by Midas. Hop vines spiral around vertical strings connected to 13-foot-high wires. Each plant drips hundreds of spiky, chartreuse-tinged flowers.

A small farm crew drives a truck between the rows, cutting the top half off each vine. Those are fed into a great blue box of a machine, whose chains and gears rattle as metal fingers pick the flowers and send them down a series of conveyor belts into giant sacks.

Claudia demonstrates how she measures whether a vine is ready to harvest: She looks for pale, cone-shaped flowers that have become papery enough to rustle when squeezed. She cracks one open and exposes lines of tiny yellow dots at the center: glands that secrete a resin called lupulin, the source of hops’ bittering, preservative and aromatic powers.

In row after row, Friedman tears open the flowers, rubbing them between his hands to release the oils, then dives into the petals, nose first. Vegetal aromas dominate the underripe hops; get a ripe one, and you’re deep in fragrant pine, black pepper and citrus.

It’s not surprising to find Cascades, Chinooks and Centennials, three of the most popular cultivars for the craft-beer industry, in the fields. But there also are two varieties the Kuchinskis have named Gargoyle and Ivanhoe.

They’re actually remnants of California’s lost hop industry. Several years after the Kuchinskis’ first hop harvest, they began cultivating plants given them by a few old-timers, who had reached out and mentioned that they had a few straggling vines on their land. These turned out to be variants of Cluster hops, a cross of European and native American species that U.S. brewers have been growing since at least the 18th century. Cluster hops were once planted from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and by the early 1900s, California competed against New York to produce the most.

Cluster hops, however, proved susceptible to powdery mildew. About a century ago, huge plantings in both states were ravaged. Then came Prohibition, and by Repeal, California’s hop industry had collapsed. Now almost all U.S. hops are grown in the Pacific Northwest.

Seventy percent of the Kuchinskis’ business come from dried hops. But Friedman, like a growing number of Northern California brewers, is taking advantage of Hops-Meister’s location to get fresh hops during the two-week harvest.

Steve Dresler, brewmaster at Sierra Nevada, pioneered wet-hopped beers in 1996; the Chico brewery continues to release an Estate Ale, made with hops grown on its property, every September. In the past four years, more and more local brewers have emulated Sierra Nevada, releasing wet-hopped beers in honor of the harvest.

Making beer with fresh hops is tricky, however: Fresh flowers weigh five times more than dried and can gum up brewing systems built for the more standard pellets. Plus, they have to be used within 24 hours.

Dave “Zambo” Zamborski, head brewer at 21st Amendment in San Francisco’s SoMa, used to ship fresh hops from the Northwest, but overnight wasn’t fast enough. “When you open the box, all this steam comes out because of the heat from decomposition. And that’s your aroma going bye-bye.” This year, Zamborski was so inspired by his first shipment from Hops-Meister that he made two wet-hopped beers.

At the farm, Friedman arranges for Marty to rush flowers from the brewer’s favorite rows of Cascades and Gargoyles back to the Bay Area, where he will dump them into just-boiled wort, infusing it with the flowers’ unique flavors.

“The comparison between wet and dry hops is similar to fresh and dried herbs,” he says. “When hops are dried, you get more condensed flavors, but (they) lack some of the depth and complexity that you get from a freshly picked, leafy product.” That flavor is so fragile that, like every other local brewer The Chronicle spoke to, Almanac is only releasing this year’s wet-hopped IPA on draft.

The Kuchinskis say that, as they expand their plantings, this personal contact with brewers helps them improve their product. Northern California brewers say the Clear Lake hop harvest lets them make a beer with a rare sense of season and place. That specificity comes with a caveat: Hesitate, and you’ll have to wait 12 months to try them.

Jonathan Kauffman is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: Twitter: @jonkauffman