August 19, 2022

From the Fields: Hops happy with water doses

FAIRBURY, Ill. — A much-needed rain was steadily falling across Livingston County Friday morning, July 15, as Lincoln Slagel and his wife, Kim, were making preparations for the weekend at Emancipation Brewery Company.

It’s been drying up in this locale and the rain will benefit the corn, soybeans and hops growing just outside the brewery.

The hops are growing adjacent to the century-plus-old former dairy barn on the Slagel family farm that houses the brewery.

When needed, an irrigation system with a timer is used to keep the hops happy. In addition, Lincoln’s father and co-owner, Don, installed a system for fertilizer to be added to the water during irrigation.

“It’s all on a timer, so we’re able to meter how much water and how much fertilizer is applied,” Lincoln Slagel said.

Hops are finicky about water and can also be susceptible to disease if it’s too wet.

“In an ideal world, the hops get a lot of small watering, so you’re never flooding them. In most places they’ll even have a berm that they’re planted on and make the ground a little rockier than normal for better drainage,” Slagel continued.

“If you’re just flooding them all the time, the chances of mold and mildew increase. Since they’re basically a bush at the base, a lot of times the leaves may be laying on the ground. If the ground is constantly wet, especially at the beginning of the year, you really have to watch that.

“That’s why you’ll see them on a berm and a lot of times other vegetation like grass on the berm will be removed.”

Good Crop

The hops are well-established and looking good so far.

“Our hops are coming along nicely. Getting the hops to mature at the right time is the key. It’s not necessarily best for them to be as tall as possible as soon as possible because what could happen is they mature before they really start putting on the hop cones and you could end up with a lot smaller yield,” Slagel noted.

As with corn and soybeans, the timing of hop harvest varies by geography.

“They’re harvesting now in the Southern Hemisphere, in Australia and New Zealand. In fact, the first hops of the year from those countries just landed in the U.S. I just got an email from one of our hop suppliers yesterday,” Slagel said.

“In the Pacific Northwest, harvest really starts happening July and August. It’s a little later here, late August to early September. The reason for that is they get off to a slow start here because of the cold winters here.”

The agricultural and agronomic aspects of hop production are among the parts of being a brewer that Slagel enjoys.

As with any agricultural product, characteristics of the end products aren’t always the same.

Slagel pointed to a bag of hops he used for brewing last week. The variety is called Chinook from Land Locked Hops near Loda, the primary supplier of hops to the brewery.

“This is my personal favorite from the hop farm there. Once the hops are harvested, they are dried in a kiln. Since they’re basically a flower, you try to get the moisture out of them as soon as possible otherwise even in 12 to 24 hours after they’re fresh-picked they can spoil. When we pick them, we brew them the same day — pick and brew,” Slagel said.

“Hop growers harvest the fresh cones, dry them and then pelletize them. They are then sent to a lab to be sampled and the most important information I get are the alpha and beta acids.

“This bag has 7.01 for these hops and that tells me how much bitterness they will lend to the beer. So, when I’m doing my calculations on my recipe I can account for how bitter it’s going to make the beer. So, if the alpha acid is 10, I’ll know I need to increase my hop use by X amount.

“That’s the fun part. There’s the agricultural side of it and the different things that they do in the different years translates to different bitterness levels. There are a lot of different acids and oils in the hops that vary from year to year.

“Last year, we brewed a batch from what would have been the 2020 crop year of a certain beer that had certain flavors. The next year the same hops off the same plot of land, in fact the same few rows, had a slightly different character to it.”

No matter how small or large a brewery is, the success hinges on hop analysis.

“People don’t realize, but even Anheuser-Busch is getting hops in by the trainload and is constantly getting the lab analysis results back and is altering the amount of hops needed. So, one batch of Bud Light may have a different amount of hops than the last batch,” Slagel explained.

“It’s neat because a lot of it is a little bit more creative on this side and I enjoy the differences between years, whereas Anheuser-Busch’s objective is to make the same product over and over again.

“I like to be in the same realm, but I don’t mind so much if it’s slightly different because I know some people may like it more and some might like the other version slightly better, but that to me is the fun part and speaks a lot more to the realistic agriculture side than otherwise.

“We grew up seeing the differences year to year with corn and soybeans. So, it’s always strange to me when I see agricultural-based products that are exactly the same all of the time.”

French Oak

Two wooden barrels arrived this past week at Emancipation Brewing that will add another tool in making beer.

“They’re French oak barrels that held French red wine. I got them from another brewery and I’m going to be turning them basically into fermentors to ferment and age beer in,” Slagel noted.

“The really neat thing is as beverages have gone the same way as food where people care about where it comes from; when I bought them I was just expecting regular French wine barrels. I actually know the forest where the wood came from for those barrels. There’s a small forest just southeast of Paris where they harvested the wood from.”

Pre-Prohibition

The Slagels are also preparing for special event they are hosting on Aug. 13 when they will have a specially brewed beer using a corn variety called Boone County White.

The corn was developed by James Riley of Boone County, Indiana, in the 1870s.

“It became really popular across the Midwest in the late 1800s. It’s now used a lot in brewing and distilling. I’m excited to see the difference between corn varieties. It’s going to be a pre-Prohibition style lager with ingredients that would have been used previous to 1910ish. I’m excited about that and a look back at what beer might have been like then,” Slagel said.

Tom Doran

Tom Doran

Field Editor