In a bygone day, before the industry was mechanized, the annual hop harvest attracted scores of workers to the countryside — men, women and children eager to earn some extra cash by hand-picking the fragrant cones. Sundown, after a hard day of plucking, was a time to kick up one’s heels. According to the history “Tinged With Gold: Hop Culture in the United States” (University of Georgia Press, 1992) by Michael A. Tomlan:
“In the nineteenth century, the proprietor often celebrated the harvest with a public ball in a nearby village. . . . Many smaller inns and hotels held dances on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, and on alternate nights different farms would put on dances in their barns.”
Celebrate this year’s hop crop the old-fashioned way on Wednesday at Blue Mountain Brewery in Afton, Va. Owner/brewer Taylor Smack has planted 300 hills with Cascade hops, and he’s expecting a bumper crop of at least 200 to 300 pounds.
He needs workers to remove the cones, however, so he can rush them to his kettle to make a 15-barrel batch of Blue Reserve, a wet-hopped ale that won a silver medal in the 2012 World Beer Cup.
“We usually get over 100 people, who pluck the hops clean in about four hours,” says Smack. Show up at noon to sign up for a shift and get a free lunch. The hop bines, which grow on 13-foot-high trellises fashioned from poles and cable, are chopped down and laid out on a table in a shady area. Charlottesville folk and bluegrass musician Tara Mills will provide entertainment while guest workers pick the cones and toss them into buckets.
Most of the volunteers, notes Smack, don’t mind getting their hands covered with lupulin, the sticky yellow powder that contains the aromatic compounds of the hop. But if you have sensitive skin, you might want to wear a pair of canvas gloves to protect you from the bristly bines.
Unfortunately, says Smack, Virginia law doesn’t allow him to provide free beer, but the brewpub offers eight varieties on tap for purchase.
Aug. 1 is a bit early for hops to mature. But most commercial hop growing in this country takes place in cooler and more northerly climes. Samuel Adams Latitude 48 IPA, for instance, takes its name from the coordinate that’s considered optimal for growing Humulus lupulus. (By contrast, Afton is situated at about latitude 37.)
Cascade is a hardy variety, however, and seems to be thriving even in this year’s heat wave. “There are tons of cones; it’s been an impressive year,” says Smack.
He predicts the freshly hopped batch of Blue Reserve should be ready to drink around Aug. 25. Volunteers will be welcomed back to hoist a glass and boast, “I helped!”