A Tasty Tour at Empire Orchards & Hops Farm

As root vegetables, squash, and fresh, crisp Michigan apple’s make their way to market, we at Short’s have just enjoyed the harvest of one of our favorite crops – hops!  Hops, the flowering cone of the Humulus Lupulus plant are an integral ingredient to many of the beers we brew and love.  Last month, our friends at Empire Orchards & Hops Farm took many of us on a tour of their fields and facility in conjunction with our Beer 101 class. It was like a 6th grade field trip all over again. We set out our boots and granola bars the night before, and dreamt of dancing hops plants as soon as our heads hit the pillow.

Our morning began in Bellaire at the Brewpub with a class about beer and hops conducted by Short’s Head Beer Liberator, Jon “Woj” Wojtowicz.  Woj prides himself in relaying top notch information about hops, malt, beer and the beer industry to all of us here at Short’s, sprinkling in his usual humor to keep things interesting (and keep us awake). Here are some cliff notes:

  • Hops are the flowering cone of Humulus Lupulus plant, which is a climbing bine.
  • Hops are dioecious (2 sexes and only the female plants are used for beer) and perennial (the above ground growth dies off and grows back every year).
  • Hops add preservative qualities, flavor, aroma, and, most importantly, bitterness to beer.
  • Hops contain two main components: bittering acids and essential oils.

There are three types of hops used in brewing: wet hops, whole leaf, and pelletized hops.  Woj passed out wet, (unprocessed) Cascade and Chinook hops that had been harvested just that morning from Empire Hops Farm.  These hops were available at the brewpub because pub brewers Ryan and Luke were brewing a batch of Devil’s Lettuce, a wet-hopped India Pale Lager brewed exclusively with Empire Hops.

Wet-hopped beers can only be made during harvest, as unprocessed hops have a shelf life of less than 24 hours!  Many people claim that wet hops keep all of the delicious hop oils and resins intact that give IPA’s their signature flavor.  Never fear beer lovers, whole leaf and pelletized hops are a dried form of hop that are shelf-stable and can be used throughout the year.

After a rainy drive to Empire (umm, it was raining cats, dogs, pigs, and roosters), we were greeted by the sight of a 10 acre field of eye popping green hop bines that stretched 18 feet in the air.  The angels sung.  Empire Hops Farm was founded as part of Empire Orchards in 2008 when the Wiesen family decided to grow their business to include hops.  Their farm originally included one 10 acre hopyard, but has quickly grown as the demand from local brewers for local hops has skyrocketed.  Today, Empire Hops Farm continues to grow, adding new hopyards and a new processing and drying facility.  They frequently receive hop orders from breweries like Short’s, Founder’s, and New Holland.

Our tour was pretty much radical.  We learned things like the drying of hops (which takes place at 135 degrees).  We also learned that hops need to be dried to 9% moisture content for optimal packaging and brewing and that they grow on a system of trellises with bines reaching approximately 18 feet in to the air. Don’t you feel smarter now? We do too.

We want to extend a huge thank you to Empire Hops Farm for quenching our thirst for hops knowledge with a tour of their farm.  We also wish to offer hearty congratulations for another successful growing and harvest season.

If you desire to quench your personal thirst for beer knowledge, start by attending a Beer 101 class at Short’s.  Short’s will be hosting Beer 101 classes every six weeks beginning October 22nd.  These classes will focus on various ingredients and aspects of beer making.  We hope to see you there!