I must have visited Yxnevik two or three times before I knew about the hops vines. Granted, I only moved to Sweden just last Spring and it wasn’t until July when I started brewing my own beer. Yxnevik is positioned 20 km south from Västervik, a scenic coastal town on the Baltic Sea. The farm caresses a rocky inlet, with a stunning scenery of grassy knolls dotted with oaks, birches, pines and moss-covered boulders. Native orchids sprout up for only a week or so at a time, catch them while you can! Missed them? No worries, a cascading palette of color unfolds from April through October. Like much of Småland, the landscape changes so frequently that I am convinced there must be at least eight seasons here.
Thomas is a colleague of mine from my days spent looking at critters, like shrimp and anemones, under a microscope for long hours and unravelling the mysteries of the deep-sea. We both studied animals that live near underwater volcanoes and have specializations in ecology, taxonomy and evolutionary biology. Wet met at a conference in Japan in 2009 and now that I am in his country (though no longer a researcher), we’ve become friends. His wife’s family own the farm at Yxnevik which raises cattle and sheep that graze and maintain the landscape and its ecology in a traditional manner as has been done for centuries there. Their family has a stuga (a swedish guesthouse) on the property where they visit several times a year and have even carved out a nice garden in their yard. This is very common among swedes. Even in less rural surroundings, most properties have a guest house and many swedes, especially those in cities, have a small countryside cabin they visit over the idyllic summer and even for some nostalgic winter fun.
After spending a day eating salad and sausages, watching our children run around their garden, up and down the rocky hillside, I mentioned my new-found brewing passion. My first beer was more or less a standard pale ale, really a clone of California’s Sierra Nevada brewery. I picked this because Sierra Nevada and Mendocino Brewing Co. were my first libation liberations from a teenage imprisonment behind the cylindrical aluminum bars of Budweiser, Icehouse and – if the occasion was a special – Miller High Life. Such are the travesties of my Iowan youth of the 90s, nearly a decade before craft beer and microbreweries would dot the United States countryside like protestant churches. Except for me, the holy baptism was entrenched in Cascade, a highly flavoral and aromatic northwestern US hop that defined early west coast ales. This pale ale that brewed was so good that I was out 25 liters within just weeks.
Thomas nonchalantly mentioned to me that the vines trained along twine up the falu-red stained wood of their stuga will be producing hops cones at the end of Summer. Having no use for them he said I could use them in one of my beers if I so wished. I was dumbfounded. Real live hops vines right in front of me! I hadn’t given much thought to what hops were out in nature. The hops that I get commercially are dried from last Fall’s harvest. Vacuum-sealed in foil packs, often deep-froze to preserve their freshness, opening a new package is akin to all the smell and taste receptors from the tip of your nose to the back of your throat having the best possible sex that could ever exist. That first sniff is like having a plate of North Carolina barbecue shoved in front of you after twenty years stranded in the desert eating nothing but lizards, cactus and sand. Not that I know what any of this is, but I could imagine. Perhaps swedes don’t know what this is like either. This will also need to be remedied…
The dried out, compacted flower cones concentrate the oils maximizing the sting of the flavor and the punch of the aroma. Let’s put it this way, when opening a new bag I prefer to be alone so I can take my time and enjoy the experience without question, strange looks or interruption. I could write an entire book chapter based upon the quasi-religious experience of opening the last 500 gram pack of Amarillo that I used in my Red Amarillo Rye Ale brewed last week, but I defer.
So what to make of freshly picked hops? Would they exceed my expectations, being fresh and more… natural, per se? Or would I be disappointed. After all, we had no idea what variety these hops were. A wild hop, indeed, and it would be another five to six weeks through a whirlwind of harvest brewing, fermenting, bottling and aging before I would find out. Yet, these hops had possibly been growing on the farm for decades and possibly a century or more prior to the arrival of the current tenants. In fact, many farms in Sweden were required to grow hops to supply to the army for beer. A century ago they probably didn’t have a good handle on the variety of aromas and flavors that different hops plants could produce around the world. While I am unable to tell what they are, they are likely related to other hops varieties that grow in northern Europe, such as Poland and Germany. Placing it probably somewhere in the Goldings or Halletauer part of the family vine. But it could be just as likely be an ole-fashioned wild hop with no direct lineage to varieties that produced today.
By late August or early September Thomas and his family visited Yxnevik for a long weekend and invited me over for a lunch and to let the kids play together. We examined the hops cones. Three vines grew along the house while another vine, a cutting Thomas transplanted earlier in the year, grew along a knotty old fence post across the garden. The smell was unique and fresh, but distinctly like a hop! Also, very unlike the dried hops I have always brewed with. At this time the cones were probably harvestable, but I wasn’t prepared and didn’t want to intrude much so I told them I’d come by in a week or so to check them out and harvest them.
Hops cones should be harvested at exactly the right time and you only have a narrow window to work within, one or two weeks, three at the most. Green hops, picked too early, tend to be exceptionally grassy with a harsh, undesirable bitterness while picking too late results in a skunky, moldy cheese sort of flavor. What one is most interested in is the content of lupilin, which is the hops’ resin that provide the alpha and beta acids, oils and other compounds the give hops their flavors and aromas. It is differences in the chemical composition of this resin among hops varieties that account for the wide array of flavors and aromas. The best method to determine if a hop vine is ready to be picked is to merely look at a few cones and see if it has started to turn a little yellowish and the bracts of the cone has opened a little and started to turn brown at the edges. This is lupilin perfection, the hoply grail as it were.
I came back to Yxnevik about 8 days later on a cool, cloudy and misty September afternoon with my son in tow. It lies between our village of Mörtfors and the town of Västervik, roughly 40 km north, and is more or less a 10 minute stretch of country side roads off the main highway E22. Although I called ahead to get permission, and so we wouldn’t surprise anyone (swedes are not big fans of dropped in on), no one was at the farm anyways. The tires of my Renault station wagon gently rolled over the dirt path coated in sheep shit which had now been marinating in the light rain all day. Elliot and I jumped out in our full rain gear with a large garbage bag eager to get to work.
I imagine for a six year old it must have seemed very exciting and strange. Here we are, at a beautiful seaside farm seething in salted air, shaped by large rocks and smoothed over boulders left behind by retreating glaciers from several millennia in the past. Every time we’ve been here before it was sunny, buzzing with activity and kids for him to play with, now it sits emptied as if we were sneaking into a holy place to pilfer the temples’ coffers. Instead of metallurgical gold, though, we were hot on the trail of botanical treasures.
One of the vines was more or less growing untrained in a bushy state along the ground with some tendrils clinging to weathered pores in the wood siding of the stuga. I set Elliot to harvesting the cones from the bottom while I tended to the taller vines trained upwards on strings. Hops grows best when it is allowed to climb to the heavens soaking in the summer sunshine. Which also means they need lots of water. This is why hops grow so well in temperate climates such the US Pacific northwest, northern continental europe and UK. Even parts of Australia and New Zealand are becoming fast-growing centers for hops. The climate is moist, with just enough sunlight over the warm months, and the soil is rich in minerals which are constantly replenished from wealthy watersheds.
It was perhaps a good 30-45 minutes and my assistant was bored enough to go on strike from his farm labors. Clearly, climbing a tree and exploring was favorable to the manual labor of gingerly plucking thumb length flowers from beneath broad leaves, hanging like grapes on the vine. He did manage coat the bottom of his bag and was quite proud of all he done. I finished my work and moved on to the newer vines that were trained along the fence post at the end of the garden. We came out with a nice haul of 652 grams. The smell was earthy, like fresh cut grass after a cool Fall rain – which was pretty close to the truth – and lavishly filled the car on our way to the grocery store and then home. I’m not sure the aroma was as appreciated by all, but if you are a hop-head or a brewer, you’d understand.
Picking fresh hops from the vine by myself made me feel like the real deal. A sort of brewer’s trial of manhood. But truth be told, I hadn’t a clue what to do with them. My research on the internet and homebrewing forums led me to a few collected ‘facts’ about using fresh hops: 1) they work better in later additions to the boil and also in dry-hopping to emphasize aroma; 2) boiling longer than thirty minutes tended to bring out undesirable characteristics, like grassiness; 3) you needed to use much more hops in a batch because the drying process that is bypassed when brewing ‘wet’ concentrates the oils. The amount you should use ranged everywhere from three to ten times as much but I settled in comfortably at around five times as much hops as I would normally use. I also decided to continuously hop the wort (the unfermented beer) starting with 25 minutes left in the boil. At each five minute interval I would add 100 grams, saving the last 150 grams for dry-hopping later. I included 30 IBUs (international bitterness units) worth of Northern Brewer hops early in the boil, though, the make sure the beer would end up in the range for a proper pale ale. Since it is boiled for the full hour, most of the aromatics are gone leaving behind only bitterness to balance out the malt’s sweetness. So the majority of the aromatic character of the beer should be from the wild hop.
A lack of foresight, though, led to a few complications. Because this opportunity sort of presented itself to me I didn’t really have all the materials I needed at hand. I wanted to use a pale ale recipe but was low on malts. So the malt backbone of the beer – the sweet yin to the hops’ bitter yang – would have to be a mish-mash of whatever I had laying around. This resulted in a strange half pale malt (43%), half Munich I malt (47%) with the remaining 10% of the malt bill in caramelized malts (CaraPils and CaraMunich I). In hindsight, it was a pretty solid malt bill but at the time I was a bit flustered by my unpreparedness, while also proud of myself for constructing this recipe on the fly. After all, I had to use these fresh hops as soon as possible or they risked rotting away or, worse, risk losing all those aromatic oils to the air. Even dried and frozen hops lose degrade, some within months and others after years. Though I had refrigerated them immediately it was nearly a week before I would use them and I didn’t want to risk wasting this unique opportunity. More importantly, I had to impress Thomas with a good beer made from his hops!
The other problem was that since I had no idea what type of hops these were, I had no idea how much bitterness they would add. Even if I knew what variety they were, an aromatic Goldings or highly bitter Northern Brewer, I could at least get a general sense of where the final product would lay on the bitterness spectrum. But these were most likely some kind of wild hop whose chemical make-up would remain hidden to me without spending some money to send in to a lab for analysis. In fact, Sweden is not a hops growing region and I do not believe there exists any commercial hops farms in this country. As the climate changes and the beer industry grows here, it may be the case that the southern part of the country could profitably support a hops growing industry. But, as I observe here, thar be wild hops here to tame!
The beer fermented without incident and after two weeks I emptied the rest of my bitter botanic bounty into the fermentor to dry-hop the beer. Dry-hopping is the process of infusing the fermented wort (now can properly be called a beer) with hops cones. This doesn’t add any further bitterness to the beer as the necessary alpha acids that impart this quality must be extracted via boiling. What it does is wash the flavors of the hops into the beer. Many hops, especially those low in alpha acids, have very lovely and highly aromatic bouquets with elements of citrus, fruit, earthiness, floral, spice and pine. Infusion captures these aromatic qualities which, when released after weeks under lock in the bottle, can cause orgasms in your nose (nosegasms?) and on your taste buds. The more ‘hoppy’ a beer is, the more likely it is to have been dry-hopped (i.e. many pale ales and IPAs).
After a week of dry-hopping in the fermentor, the beer was ready to be bottled. I used mostly 33 cL bottles so I had more to give away. I wanted to make sure Thomas got at least a case for generously letting me have his hops. My bottles are all recycled from friends and family. I’ll take any bottle I can fit a cap over, clean it out by soaking in a basic cleaning solution overnight (which conveniently removes old labels as well) then sanitizing with heat and steam in the dishwasher on a 3 hour cycle that gets up to 70C. This rinses any residual cleaner off it and kills any microbes that might still be present. I’ve done hundreds of bottles this way and have never had an infected bottle (infected batches though, that’s another story). These days, I make so much beer that I’ve resorted to storing some in 5 liter mini kegs and actually buying bottles from a brewing supply store in addition to recycling bottles.
My beers are all färsköl, meaning fresh beer, in that they are bottled unfiltered with the yeast still present. Even though the beer is done and all the fermentable sugar has been converted to alcohol, these microbial workhorses still have a job to do. The final component in making beer is carbonating it, giving it the bubbles and foam head that makes a beer look like a beer. With traditional bottle-carbonation, a small amount of sugar is added to the batch just before bottling. The yeast eat this little snack in the bottle, basically farting out the carbon dioxide locking in the carbonation under the bottle cap. Carbonation is more important that just providing the bubbly tingle on our tongues. The addition of carbon dioxide and the continuing activity of the yeast means the character of the beer evolves as it ages. The foamy head is the result of the carbonation interacting with the unfermentable sugars and proteins (many from caramelized malts). It usually takes about a week to achieve a decent level of carbonation and perhaps a little longer for some beers to develop their head. Aging depends on many factors but it is basically ready when you say it is ready. I’m too impatient and too much of a drunk to wait more than 2-4 weeks after bottling to start digging in. But, in general, more complex beers take longer for the flavors to reach a sort of equilibrium.
The Yxnevik Wet-Hop Pale Ale ended up being 5.2% ABV (alcohol by volume). Beer made with fresh, undried hops are referred to as wet-hopped. Often, the cones are picked from the vine and throw right into the boil. I tried my first bottle after two weeks and was pleasantly surprised. A decent pale ale with a distinct taste and aroma that felt as wild as the hops used to make it. The aroma is earthy, slightly grassy and floral with a hint of citrus. In fact, this was probably one of my most aromatic beers. The balance between malt and bitterness was well within the pale ale style. The first sip is pleasing and tingling from being well-carbonated and has a certain dryness to the mouthfeel. The back-end of the beer is bitter, but not too harsh, changing noticeably from the Yxnevik wild hops – grassy, earthy – to the standard bitterness from the Northern Brewer used early in the boil that forms the aftertaste. Where the hops really come into play are in the aromatic qualities and initial flavors of the beer. It is hard to describe in words, but when you taste the beer you can tell it is different. Has a more farm-like sensation about it. There is definitely a difference in using wet hops versus dried hops.
Needless to say, Thomas was impressed and I think he and his brother-in-law drank most of his share of the beer in one sitting. As for me? I drank most of my share, including the 5 bottles drank as inspiration to write this tale, and only have four bottles left out of 20 liters I bottled! So if you’d like to try it, you’d better hurry… But don’t fear, we’ll be making this every Fall and may even tweak the recipe a little bit each year to make it a unique, fun harvest-time tradition. Skål!