Feeling Fresh: Delivering hops by bike

By Adam Newman

I’ll admit that I’m a sucker for a bike ride with a theme, especially when it involves a liberal dose of libations. Last fall I joined a dozen or so like-minded cyclists for a relaxed ramble through the countryside south of Portland. Our mission was to pick up as many hops as we could carry and return them to Base Camp Brewing Company for a special fresh hop brew.

The concept for the Fresh Hop Century was sparked by a conversation between Base Camp’s Ross Putnam and Phillip Ross, who builds Metrofiets cargo bikes in Portland. When the two realized they were close enough to the hop farms to pick up hops by bike, an idea began to ferment.

One of the four key ingredients in beer—along with the wort, the water, and the yeast—hops are used as a balancing and flavoring tool. They were first introduced into the beer brewing process in Germany in the Ninth Century. Soon their use spread through Northern Europe, to Britain, and on to the New World. In 1972 the U.S. had its first home-grown hop variety: the Cascade, developed by the USDA in Oregon, and the rise of selective hop cultivating parallelled the burgeoning craft beer scene in the 1980s and ‘90s.

While most hops are dried and used year-round, in the 1990s brewers began experimenting with hops that go straight from the bine (that’s not a typo, these aren’t grapes) to the wort, the liquid that makes up beer before fermentation. For a beer to qualify as a true fresh hop, or “wet hop,” the beer must be brewed with hops that have been picked within the previous 24 hours. This means the brewery needs to be pretty close to the farms where hops are grown but some breweries have gone as far as employing chartered airplanes to deliver the goods. “Time is of the essence,” Putnam said.

As customers grew to love the hoppy flavor it fueled the rapid proliferation of India Pale Ales in the American craft beer market. Now fresh hop ales have a following of their own, with dozens of varieties available every fall in North America. If you need your fix in the spring, there are beers made with hops harvested in the Southern Hemisphere. Compared to a traditional IPA, fresh hop beers are characterized by their sweet, vibrant flavor with hints of citrus and freshly-cut lawns.

About 15 riders, including nine or 10 aboard Metrofiets cargo bikes, departed Portland under looming rain clouds. By the time we broke free from the urban gridlock to traverse the rolling hills of the Willamette Valley, the skies had cleared like the head on a pilsner. Our destination was GeerCrest Farm, a working farm and agricultural heritage center that hosts school groups, summer camps, and workshops on topics such as soil dynamics, wool working, and goat butchering. Our hosts Cayla, Patty, and Adam shared with us the history of the property, the second land claim in Oregon (when it was still a territory) in 1848. They followed it with an amazing meal prepared almost entirely with food grown on the land they cultivated. We camped beneath the stars with tired legs and full bellies.

The morning brought more delicious food and hot coffee from Trailhead Coffee Roasters’ amazing coffee-brewing cargo bike. We loaded up and headed off to our next destination, Goschie Farms. A fixture in the Oregon farming community for more than 130 years, Goschie Farms grows wine grapes, sweet corn, wheat, and other crops, but it’s the hops that get the most attention. With more than 500 acres on the bine, representing as many as 10 varieties at a time, Goschie is one of the state’s leading producers, innovators, and researchers of hops.

Gayle Goschie took us through the processing barn, where huge hooks carry the bines up from the trucks that deliver them, hang them from a ceiling 50 feet in the air, and strip the hop cones themselves. From there we visited the storage barn, where small forklifts sorted and arranged piles of radiant, glowing green hop cones piled high above our heads. The aroma was intoxicating, especially when they were being bundled into huge bales with tiny flecks floating down like rain from the beer gods.

Unlike our fresh hops, most of the crop is dried using a special drying rack that’s as big as a tennis court. Warm, dry air is floated through the cones and their moisture content is carefully monitored. What used to be done just by the feel of the hand is now measured with carefully calibrated machines. From here things got a bit silly as we carried a few of the cargo bikes up to the drying area to fill them directly off the conveyor belt and hammed it up for the photos. We couldn’t actually transport them this way, so we filled 30-pound sacks with Cascade hops and loaded up the bikes for our trip home. Back at the brewery, they were added to the brewing process just at the right time to create the Bretta Livin’ sour beer.

The beer we contributed to wouldn’t be available for a few weeks, but out on the Base Camp Brewing patio, we raised our glasses to an excellent adventure and new friends. If only every ride could end this way.

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