A sure sign that autumn approaches: our hops have been harvested!
Last weekend, Head Gardener Sandra Spudic and I teamed up with a band of intrepid hop harvesters to gather in our crop for Ed’s Wet Hop Ale. After introductions in the Visitors’ Centre, we went straight to our hop garden behind Laskay’s Emporium. The air was cool and fresh from recent rains – perfect weather for harvesting. As we admired the hop trellises, Sandra told us a bit about their cultivation.
Hops grow fairly quickly and easily, but they are vulnerable to dampness. You need a lot of airflow to ensure healthy plants – hence the wide spacing between our trellises. Sandra describes training the hops as a “Maypole effect.” That is, three plants grow up and around the central pole. When they reach the top, some of the more vigorous ones start spiraling back down!
I then shared a bit about the history of brewing with hops. Hops have two major uses in beer. Their lupulin, the yellowish powder found in female hops, acts as a bittering agent (it also creates a mild soporific effect) and the oils and resins in the hops helps to keep beer from souring. However, hops were not always used in brewing.
The first reference to cultivated hops dates from 736, and they were used in brewing in the Low Countries by the eleventh century. Otherwise, beer was brewed with gruit, a mixture of herbs including bog myrtle, yarrow, and rosemary that flavoured the beer, but did not provide hops’ preservative benefits. While we consider ale a subset of beer today, this was not always the case either. Until the sixteenth century, they were two different beverages, with a distinction was made between hopped beer and un-hopped ale.
But hops encountered resistance. Partly, this was because the English were particularly protective of their national drink, which was un-hopped ale. As well, the right to produce gruit (the gruitrecht) was granted by your lord: if you wanted your gruitrecht, you had to pay for it. Hops had no such right attached; shifting away from gruit therefore meant less money going to the lords.
However, the benefits of hops outweighed these arguments, and they were more-or-less accepted for use in brewing by 1600. By the 1860s, they were an expected component of beer, and ale had come to mean a beer brewed with top-fermenting yeasts (Saccharomyces cerevisiae), in contrast to lagers, which were brewed with bottom-fermenting yeasts (Saccharomyces uvarum).
After filling two bushel baskets, we carried our bounty down to Ed. Usually, hops are dried before brewing, but for this very special Wet Hop Ale, we put them straight in. Our harvesters assisted with adding the hops to the boil and ensuring that everything was well-stirred.
We then said goodbye to Ed and learned about another important component of beer: barley and malt! Sandra showed us the barley fields, and then it was off to the grain barn for some threshing and winnowing. Threshing with a flail takes skill and a nimble wrist. Our harvesters did very well; I did not.
I would blame the crinoline, but we all know that blame is misplaced.
The process of winnowing separates grain from chaff. One method involves tossing threshed barley with a blanket and hoping for a stiff breeze. We used our fanning mill instead. A hand-turned fan creates the necessary wind, whilst weed seeds pass through an inclined screen, leaving our clean barley to fall out the other end.
After all that work, our harvesters deserved a break! In our historic restaurant, they sampled cookies and bread made from Ed’s spent grains, while I discussed the social history of beer and brewing in nineteenth century Ontario. Naturally, a beer tasting followed. :)
Thank you to all our harvesters for all your hard work! And thank you very much to Sandra Spudic for an amazing event. As I type this, the Wet Hop Ale is fermenting down in the brewery. It should be aged up and ready to hit the fridges by September 4th – watch this space for updates.
PS. Don’t forget, we have another fantastic event coming soon! A Spirited Affair is less than a month away! You can sample craft beer, wine, and spirits while enjoying the best of the 1860s and 1960s – click here for more information.