At the start of September, we journeyed to Alsace for the annual hop harvest.
We traveled accompanied by Kate, a writer who was among the first to visit our workshop, and Jean-Marie, photographer extraordinaire — who had already spent a day shooting at the brewery several months back.
Upon arrival in Alsace we met up with Erwin Sohn from Cophoudal(Coopérative des Producteurs de Houblons d’Alsace), at the warehouse of the cooperative in Brumath. Founded in 1939, Cophoudal at one time consisted of as many as 360 hop growers, but now numbers only 58. The region’s harvest had begun several days prior to our arrival and already members of the cooperative were pulling up with large trailers that resembled boats, full of 50kg bales of their dried hops. The warehouse was still nearly empty, with only several corners of the cool room showing growing piles of the Tradition and Fuggles varieties, but the harvest would last an entire month.
Erwin was a brewer before joining the cooperative, and so serves as an ideal link between producers and brewers. As we sampled rubbings of Cophoudal’s experimental hop varieties, which take about 10 years to bring to market, Erwin enthusiastically advocated for one that smelled like overripe pineapple. We opted for another variety, the P11-11, which had strong floral and lime aromas. Erwin graciously complied and vacuum-packed several kilos of this variety for us, which we used to dry-hop a keg of our Mission Pale Ale at a recent barbecue at the workshop. We then moved naturally from sampling hops to sampling beers as Erwin appeared with an armful of bottles brewed with different varieties of their experimental hops.
In the afternoon, we found ourselves on the land of the Holtzmann family, producers of hops for generations. It was the patriarch who showed us around the impressive processing facility where hops are mechanically separated from the bines (yes bines, not vines) and dried for several hours before being baled up and sent off the cooperative for storage. He spoke with pride and passion of the automated drying system they recently developed, which ended decades of a much more manual and sweaty labor of processing hops in temperatures of 60 degrees Celsius. The Holtzmann family produces 8 varieties of hops, and has even recently produced several beers of their own. The large barn where the hops are processed was steeped in the heavy aroma of the Strisselspalt hops, sweet and spicy, vegetal and garlicky. The Strisselspalt variety is the classic Alsatian variety par excellence, and has been cultivated for over a hundred years in the region.
Sebastian, the son who took the reins of the operation from his father, returned from the fields every thirty minutes or so with a trailer full of hop bines. Hop bines can grow up to 10m tall and can contain up to 7000 hop flowers per bine. We took our van off road and followed Sebastian in his tractor out to the hop fields being harvested, where hops extended out to the horizon. We left with ten kilos of “wet hops” – un-dried flowers fresh from the bines.
Hops are a fragile plant and drying within a few hours of harvest preserves oils and resins that provide the unique taste of beer. There is only one harvest of hops annually, and conservation to allow brewing all year round is crucial – hence, the drying and cold storage. The unprocessed aroma of fresh hops was intense and memorable, and drives the inspiration to brew a fresh hop beer once a year.
It was the brewery Sierra Nevada in Chico, California that revived the tradition of the wet hop beer in 1996, and many American breweries have since followed suit, offering “harvest ales” using fresh hops. In France, Christian Artzner of Perle Brewery in Alsace has made wet hop beers now for several years.
We returned to Montreuil the next morning to immediately brew our “harvest ale”, approximately 24 hours from field to kettle. Hop additions were made during the boil in primarily mid and late additions, in giant floating sacks.
We are pleased to present to you the result of this trip: Strisselspalt.
Strisselspalt exhibits a soft floral aroma with notes of earth, spice, and light citrus. Bitterness is extremely low to showcase these smooth Old World hops, which in their fresh form add a green and vegetal characteristic to the brew. Slightly caramelized malts add a nice Autumnal color and a faint nuttiness. The beer finishes discretely dry.
Strisselspalt will be available on tap at Supercoin and Les Trois 8. Bottles are available from our usual partners! You can also come to taste the brew at our workshop each Saturday from 11am to 15h while supplies last!
Photo credits: Jean-Marie Heidinger, http://www.heidingerjm.com/All rights reserved