Harvest and Post-harvest Activities in the Hop Yard: Part 1 – Harvesting

One of the major issues facing the development of a sustainable hop industry in Ontario is creating a supply chain which ensures a quality product to brewers and other end users.

It’s never too early to be thinking about harvest and having the appropriate equipment in place to dry and package your hops.  Harvest timing and post-harvest drying and packaging are critical activities related to hop quality.  In this series of articles we will review some general guidelines for harvest and post-harvest activities.

Harvest (Picking):

In Ontario, hops are typically harvested between mid-August and late-September, depending on cultivar and environmental conditions.  Harvest timing is important in order to preserve hop quality.  If hops are harvested too early, you may sacrifice yield and/or oil quality.  Studies also suggest that decreased yields in early season cultivars are exhibited in subsequent seasons due to the early removal of the biomass before the carbohydrates produced in the leaves can be partitioned back to the crown and root system.  If hops are left too long on the plant, the contents of the lupulin glands can be lost or begin to degrade.  Oils in hops harvested too late can also oxidise more readily during storage.

When assessing if the hops are ready to be picked, look for cones that have crisp, papery bracts (outside petals of the cone) and bracteoles.  The bracts will have a papery sound when rolled between your fingers. Bracteoles and some bracts will also exhibit a slight yellow tinge to their green colour.    Break open a cone and inspect the lupulin glands.  They should appear as a ‘mustard’ yellow, similar to the colour of the yellow line on a highway (the lupulin glands will transition from a very light ‘lemon’ yellow to ‘mustard’ yellow as the cone matures).  Browning may also be visible on the tips of the bracts, signalling that the cone is either approaching or has reached maturity.  Note, unripe cones typically have a ‘fresh cut grass’ aroma.

Ontario hop cone with lupulin exposed

(Figure 1: Harvested and dried hop cones with exposed lupulin glands)

It is important to regularly inspect hop cones as harvest season approaches.  Once cones reach maturity, there is typically a 1 week (7-10 day) window of opportunity to harvest the variety before the cones become over-mature.    If harvesting on a hot day, it is best to remove field heat as soon as possible to prevent degradation of the green plant tissue and breakdown of lupulin glands.

Hand harvest:

Hand harvesting is a viable option for growers with 0.5 acres or less, however this becomes less economically and logistically feasible as acreage increases.  In New York State, the labour requirement for hand harvesting a hop yard was estimated at over 500 man hours per acre of hops (dependent on maturity of plants and density of planting).  At the current minimum wage in Ontario of $10.25/hour, harvesting one acre of hops could cost in the range of $5125.00.

Mechanical harvest:

Growers in Ontario are moving towards mechanical harvesting systems for their hop yards.  Traditionally, Wolf harvesters have been used in larger hop production regions around the world and are now being employed in Ontario.   Wolf harvesters are stationary units and represent a large investment in time and money to obtain.  They are typically imported from continental Europe, taking up to 6 months from time of purchase to delivery,  and range in price from $30 000-50 000 including shipping.  Other options such as mobile units for small scale hop yards have been engineered and tested by growers in Ontario and other jurisdictions.  Some examples of these small scale harvesters include:

  • Foothill Hops Harvester and Gorst Valley Harvester from the North East Hop Alliance: NeHA Hop Harvesters
  • Nation Hops, Ontario, Mobile Hop Picker (Photo courtesy of Daniel Sabourin, Nation Hops) :Nation Hops Harvester (Photo: Daniel Sabourin, Nation Hops)

Stay tuned! In part 2 of this series, we will look at hop drying and packaging.

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