Friday, December 13, 2019

Farm-to-Table:This Bud's For Us

Working Harvest at "The King" of Hop Farms

Pre-harvest photo compliments of a friend who piloted our helicopter ride over The Farm
Post-harvest photo compliments of our boss :-)

Every year we look for a seasonal job that strikes our fancy as being unique, piques our curiosity, is somewhere we're interested traveling to, and/or satisfies a desire to "try" a job without making a career out of it.  This August we found a job that met all the criteria, literally in our own backyard--harvest at Anheuser Busch's Elk Mountain Hop Farms in Bonners Ferry, Idaho.
Notwithstanding, we felt we were ideal job candidates possessing a love of the final product--beer!!

Planting of Elk Mountain Farms' 600 acres began in 1987 and developed along the banks of the Kootenai River because of the location's same latitude to hop farms in Germany.  Hallertau and Saaz, the oldest hops known to man, were well-suited to Germany and were the first varieties planted at Elk Mountain with similar success.  These hops were first used in Budweiser's flagship products, Bud and Bud Light.  Today Elk Mountain Farms' hops are used in 100% of Bud Light and Goose Island IPA made in the US, in addition to other microbreweries around the country.

As the craft beer movement evolved, so did brewers' demands for new hop varieties and Elk Mountain's plantings expanded to over 7 varieties of hops on 1,700 acres--easily making it the 
largest hop farm in North America AND the largest contiguous hop farm in the World. 
Presently, Idaho is the #2 hop producing state in the US in both production and acreage--and you thought Idaho was famous only for potatoes??!!

A single acre of hops on the Farm contains 889 plants which means at full capacity there are more than 1.5 million plants--all germinated, planted, tended to, vertically-bined, maintained, and harvested with manual labor.  During spring/summer, the Farm employs a workforce of about 100 "skilled laborers" from Mexico (meaning most have worked there for decades) to tackle the pre-harvest responsibilities. 

Then, during a small window in August/September when the hop cones have matured to harvest, another 150 seasonal workers are brought in from Mexico to work around the clock, seven days a week, for nearly three weeks doing specific tasks to ensure everything is done correctly and timely and the hops are picked and processed at the peak of perfection.

Specially-designed hop combines are used for picking in the fields. There are only 30 of these combines in the entire US and Elk Mountain has 6 of them.  They are massive machines specialized to gather the whole bine (30-feet high) and initially separate the cones from the rest of the plant--you can't just call up John Deere and order one of these!
As such, having perfect weather and no mechanical breakdowns is supremely critical during harvest.
It is not surprising that two of the three top management leaders of the Farm have backgrounds in Mechanical Maintenance positions.

During harvest, dump trucks hook up behind the moving/filling combines while the trucks' drivers pitchfork the harvested hops/bines from the combines into their trucks.  

Once filled, the drivers unhook their trucks from the combines to transport and hand-unload their haul into a massive piling structure where the cones are further separated from waste materials.  

In the piling facility, the cones run through an intricate mechanical system (again uniquely designed specifically for hops) comprised of six stations including mesh grates, arm piercers, trammels, a harp and finally dribble tables.  However, the very final inspection is done by the human eye, whereby any remaining leaves/stems (material other than hops) are removed manually by a worker standing in the kiln before the drying process begins.  Ostensibly by the time the cones are ready for drying, all excess material is removed.  This excess material is composted and returned to the fields for the next crop.  

"Quality Assurance" in the Kiln

The next step in the process is drying the hops.  This is done in a massive kiln (once again, uniquely designed specifically for hops) powered by a 9 million BTU propane burner and a 75,000 CFM fan.  The hops are dried at a temperature between 130-145 degrees (depending on variety) in partitioned wooden framed kilns with perforated metal floors which are filled about 30" deep.  

It takes from 6-14 hours for the hops to reach the preferred moisture level of 9.5%, depending on the moisture level when picked, the relative humidity, and the hop variety.  Although special equipment is used to measure the moisture level during the drying process, the final decision on "hitting the mark" for bailing depends on the prowess and mastery, gained only from experience, of the drying operator who feels the hops by hand and anticipates the final dryness level.

Kiln Dryer Apprentice takes moisture reading

From the perspective of the hop producer, it is desirable to dry the hops as quickly as possible to move volume--translating to more dollars--without sacrificing final oil contest, which is the raison d'etre of hops.  It is the oil content of bittering hops or aroma hops that imparts flavor or aroma, respectively, in the process of making beer.  Adjustments in kiln heating temperature, air speed, and bed depth has significant impact on the drying process and can produce surprising numbers and insights--quality assurance is critical in enhancing and improving the process and is a perfect job for a CPA :-)
Hop "volcano" caused by uneven air flow in the drying bed

Part Science...Part Art

After "hitting the mark", the hops are ready to be used. They are loaded on an additional set of belts and transported to a bale room where they are dumped on piles for final cooling/air-drying before baling.  From the piles, they are loaded into a weight box lined with cloth until 200 lbs. are weighed.  The "bale" is then sealed by hand using two commercial-grade sewing machines.  Each bale is tested for final moisture contact, labeled, and shipped to pelletizers or directly to distributors and brewers around North America.

Kiln Dryer Apprentice sending hops to the baler

The relative isolation of Elk Mountain Farms ensures that it will remain a viable producer of hops--encroachment likely will never become an issue.  Only a few thousand people call the area home, and while there has been growth in the previous 30 years, it's unlikely to ever impact the farm, its space, or the river on which it is reliant.  The scale of the operation and which hops are grown might change, but as long as there is beer, the farm will continue to supply some of the biggest names in the industry.  

The Afterglow of Harvest

Q & A With the Local Seasonal Harvest Workers

Who comprised the harvest workforce and how did you get along? 
The labor-intensive harvesting work involves mostly migrant workers from Mexico who travel specifically to work the annual hop harvest under H2A visas.  Many in the workforce started when the farms were first planted and retired after never leaving. Individuals, couples, families with children, and relatives of all of the above(!), have been coming for decades--a few originally entering the US via "coyotes"--but most who have raised their families and sent their children to school locally and are now proud American citizens. They are provided furnished apartments and transportation to town during their work/stay and generally "settle in" planting flower and vegetable gardens on the Farm's property. 

The most unexpected aspect of the workforce was how few spoke English, not even broken English.  In fact, it was a total immersion into the depths of our basic Spanish communication skills that proved invaluable not only for us, but also for the Farm's management team who, astonishingly, spoke very little Spanish!  The workforce "leaders" were those who learned/spoke limited English and could translate directives from management.  As such, we proved very helpful to the Kiln Team.  In fact, whenever we had down time, we looked forward to sharing stories and "practicing" each others' languages.

Also surprising was that there were only 8 seasonal workers who were US citizens.  Under the H2A program, any US citizen who applies for a position must be granted the opportunity to work.  At a hourly pay rate of $13.85, no experience required, working at Elk Mountain Farms is a relatively lucrative job in the local community.  The indigenous workforce was comprised of us, two spouses of the management team, two local part-time loggers, and two millennials who travel worldwide working ag jobs in exchange for free accommodations.  

The most unique aspect of the workforce was the informal "unionization" of the laborers--the UAW has nothing on these workers and they don't even solicit dues!!   All workers are assigned very specific job titles--encompassing very specific tasks and duties--to be done during the work shift.  Although individually passionate and proud of their jobs, there is no deviation from what is specifically required and there is great consternation over anyone who "steps on the toes" of another's responsibilities, no matter if the intent is for the greater good of the entire project.  Not immediately understanding this idiosyncrasy, we would offer to "help" our coworkers with tasks and found ourselves either outright rebuked or "mumbled about" behind our backs. 

Job security is of vital importance as most of the workers rely on their seasonal positions at the Farm for their livelihood and to that end, they are all extremely loyal, committed, and dedicated to "keeping busy" and doing the best job possible.  It took us several weeks to convince the team that knowing how to do multiple jobs, and helping out wherever and whenever it was needed, was a useful plus and not a job-threatening minus. Even though overtime was not paid, it was the norm that all day shift employees (of which we were part) clocked in and were at their assigned jobs at least 15 minutes early and clocked out 15 minutes after the shift to ensure a seamless shift transition--a virtue most managers of hourly workers today can only yearn for.

The Day-Shift Kiln Team: Balthozar (Balto), Lead Kiln Dryer, and Norberto (Berto), Kiln Maintenance
Missing: John Vowell,  Kiln Dryer Apprentice (a real title!)
Susan, Quality Assurance, and Lorena, Manager of Materials Other Than Hops (MOH)

Kiln Operating Headquarters with "technology" right out of the Titan II Missile Silo :-)

What were the best aspects of your experience?
Without a doubt, working among the migrant workforce and the gratitude that the workers had for the opportunity to be employed at the Farm was MOST enjoyable--it made for such an all-around pleasant experience.  Nothing's worse than working 12-hour days, 7 days a week, for 3-4 weeks, and constantly enduring gripes and complaints from fellow employees; these workers actually felt privileged.  At first we were concerned about potential resentment, how we may be "taking" a migrant worker's position, but our coworkers' mutual enthusiasm for speaking each other's language and graciously sharing bounty from our gardens belied that notion.

The management team was top-notch and provided outstanding direction coupled with high expectations; all top managers worked at the Farm since its inception.  We were astounded by how much we were involved and entitled to participate in ALL aspects of the harvest process--from truck driving in the fields to kiln drying to maintaining all the quality assurance documentation.  As with all agricultural industries, making mistakes with product is not an option, you can't just reconstruct an annual hop crop!  But working alongside "seasoned professionals" (field hands to management) who generously shared their talents and expertise, we were fully engaged and enthralled.

Although hops are a seemingly simple and humble ingredient in the beer-making process, the biggest North American producer of said crop does not rest on its laurels.  The experimental side of the Elk Mountain Farms is as fascinating as the anomalies of the hop harvest, as we learned.  In addition to new varieties of hops being planted, new drying and pelletizing techniques being tested, and the collecting of hop plant stems and leaves for the brewing of beer sans hops(!), the Farm has established a field for the propagation of "organic" hops...and with this we were intimately involved.  

Following organic guidelines, a field of Cascade hops at the Farm was isolated to ensure no pesticides or other non-organic materials generally used on the crop infiltrated the area.  (Full-disclosure: we are not necessarily advocates of all things "organic".)  So when the matured hops from this field were delivered to the kiln (combined and transported in specially cleaned/sanitized equipment) it was not surprising that the cones were brown, brittle, dried out and shattered, plus they were literally crawling with bugs: aphids, spider mites, stink bugs, flea beetles and ladybugs!!  So many bugs that our colleague Lorena, when jokingly told that these hops were going into her favorite beer Bud Light, she vowed never to drink it again.  Well, those hops are going to be used for some beer......!!

And when the hops were drying, instead of the usual heady, green, citrus aroma of Cascade hops, these hops smelled of garlic and onions--not like garlic and onions roasting in olive oil--like the garlic and onion smell of an old Italian man who has not showered for several days!!
Cascade Hops: Non-organic (left) and Organic (right)
What was most interesting was learning first-hand how much specialized effort and energy was required for the cultivation and processing of these "organic" hops, i.e., how much more expense is incurred relative to conventional hops.  It's unsure how much longer Elk Mountain will continue this experiment, but as the GM says, "Today's beer consumers are a lot more fickle and there is virtually no loyalty to brands. We are always looking for the next big thing as there are two big niches today: drinking what's local or regional and what's the new latest and greatest. It seems to always be about what's new versus what's good!"   Nostalgia aside, it is a fait accompli....

Here comes the King, here comes the big Number One!

Budweiser beer, the king is second to none.

Just say Budweiser,

You've said it all.

Here comes the King of Beers so lift your glass let's hear the call.

Budweiser beer's the one that's leading the rest,

And beechwood aging makes it beer at its best.

One taste 'll tell you,

So loud and clear.

There's only one Budweiser beer 

(there's only one Budweiser beer)
When you say Bud there's nothing left you can say (when you say Bud).

When you say Bud, the King is right on his way (when you say Bud).

The King is coming,

Let's hear the call,

When you say Bud you've said it all 

Ya da da da da da da da da da da