Not much was calculated when I discovered abundant wild hops on a bike ride in Lincoln. It was all reflex and excitement. I stuffed a bountiful bine up my jersey and rode swiftly home. The aromas of hop and body making a heady cologne.
What I didn’t count on was another climbing plant that grows profusely in the soggy, temperate jungles of secondary growth weeds… poison ivy. But I would not know of my malfeasance until the hops were harvested, dried and packaged. This is the way I am with poison ivy, it takes a few days until the worst is known.
Regardless of the impending rain, tomorrow we were to return with knapsacks. The getting was good; most were ripe and some had started to just brown. And so we did return.
Each grouping seemed to be its own variety. The first were medium-sized and elongated. They smelled resinous and grapefruity. The bracts were the palest green with deep yellow deposits of essential oils tucked between.
Nearby, high in a scrub oak, grew small, round hops. These were faintly spicy and refined, suggesting cinnamon. They had little lupulin, though, and it would takes volumes of these fine friends to equate to just a handful of a more bitter hop. We moved on to fuller bunches.
By now one knapsack was nearly full. I saw some tempting large hops growing in prolific clusters. As nature would have it, they grew further and higher in the wet thicket. These large and elongated darlings had a fruity aroma, one we compared to cooked strawberry jam.
With a plastic grocery bag on one arm, I pushed my way down a short slope through a thicket of briars hiding amongst goldenrod and fall weeds. Above, intertwined with the hops, kudzu sprawled and offered its hair-like spines to my flesh. The hop harvest was in hostile territory – my socks full of burrs, my shins and arms impaled, and my fingers sticky with the waxy hop resins. We called it at one and half knapsacks full. Incoming rain and an accumulation of briary insults had taken their toll.
I had become exposed to poison ivy in my quest. Next year would call for long pants and shirt sleeves and a healthy scrub with Tecnu immediately after harvest.
Unless plunged directly into a “wet hop” beer, hops must be dried to prevent spoilage. Back at the house I was able to try out the dehydrate setting on my new Electrolux gas range. The problem was how to get all of the hops in the oven. I accomplished this with four baking sheets packed full. With the oven set at 120ºF, it would only take about 18 hours to dry them all.
Half went into airtight bags in the freezer. I’ll be using these this winter to make Found Hop Porter for my dear friends Kathryn and JD, to be served at their wedding reception. The rest were placed loose into a paper grocery bag and set in the cellar where they will remain for the next three years, oxidizing, loosing their bitter components, and slowly becoming ready for use in a future lambic beer episode.
Brewing with wild hops has its challenges. They don’t come from a hop producer with an assay of bitter acids considered essential for accurately formulating the bitterness of the beer. One can chew the raw hops or make a hop tea to estimate bitterness, or one can call upon intuition. When I’ve made beers with wild hops in the past, I’ve just relied on whimsy and aroma. Be sure to check out Jay Wilson’s beervana’s web log. He’s brewing with wild hops, too, in Corning, Iowa.