Harvest is Complete and Here's a First Look at the Results... / by Kathy Dunbar

Harvest is complete down here at Freestyle Farms; the last of the bines have been cut down, the final kilns dropped, and the tractors are sitting quietly in the yard.  As I reflect on this year’s harvest, and look ahead to next year, I’m encouraged by many of the things we saw, and excited by the insights we have gained from this season.  We’ve begun sorting through the data, looking for areas for improvement, and are pleased with the results.  We set quality targets across a wide array of measures, including drying temps, bale density, and leaf/stem percentage, and we achieved our targets across all areas we had control over this season, gaining valuable insights to help us further improve for next season.  We’re also pleased with the results of other experimentation we did on the farm, including fertigation, and identification of sources of off aromas.  These findings are key components to achieving our quality targets and will be invaluable going forward.

Looking ahead, we’ve already started the planning process for this spring’s plantings; we’ll be adding more of some varietals and relocating others to better take advantage of the terroir throughout the farm.  Generally, we'll be adding more Motueka, Nelson Sauvin and Southern Cross, but we'll also be switching a few varietals into blocks with soil conditions that will allow them to thrive and reach their full potential.  For example, we're moving Motueka from the heavier, wetter soils in block 9 to the lighter, free-draining soils of block 10 where we expect it to perform much better. 

The summary data is shown below, with column definitions and a few explanatory notes showing how we fared versus our long term goals for these quality metrics, and our strategy going forward.

Avg. Kiln Temp (F): Our goal is to be between 125F - 130F, where we’re achieving reasonable drying times, at the lowest temps possible, to retain as much of the volatile aromatic compounds we love.  The super low temps are from quarter-filled kilns, where we only run the bare minimum needed to dry.  We’re pleased with this year’s results and don’t expect to make any significant changes for next year.  We’ll likely experiment with load cells to control fan speeds more precisely on one or two kilns next year.  Our highest temp (140F) this year is a standard temp across much of the rest of the world, and our averages were right where we’d like to see them. Column Definition: The average kiln drying temp for each varietal and the max/min/std. dev. for every kiln run this season.

Avg. Kiln Time (hrs): These largely reflect the dynamics of the temps and fan speeds we run, interplaying with individual varietal differences in cone structure, and cone size; these results were all good. Column Definition: The average kiln drying time for each varietal and the max/min/std. dev. for every kiln run this season.

Avg. Kiln Depth (cm):  We were easily able to achieve our target kiln depths, while still being able to dry the volume of hops that we needed to.  We load kilns to a max depth of 75 cm.  With some varietals or on some days (due to weather conditions), we load slightly lower kiln depths to speed the drying times without altering temps or affecting quality.  We think 75 cm or lower represents a depth that minimizes inconsistencies in drying and any stewing effect.  Column Definition: The depth (in cm) the kilns are loaded with hops.

Avg. Dry Matter (%):  This is an important quality measure, and given the highly variable humidity conditions we experienced this season, including a few extremely wet, humid days, we’re pleased with the results.  The target set by our lessee of 10% was achieved, however next year we aim to reduce this very slightly to a target of 9.5%, which we think is close to optimal for maximizing preservation of volatile aromatics and minimizing cone shatter.  Column Definition: The percent dry matter for each varietal.

Avg. Bale Weight (kg):  We were pleased with the performance of our new machine throughout the season, proving that it can consistently produce bales at precise weights.  Next year we will aim to have every bale coming in at 115 kg’s (a density of ~130 kg/m3 or ~8 lbs/ft3).  Research has shown this to be a level that results in virtually no bursting of lupulin glands, and our testing this year left us confident it’s a good density.  The averages shown above get thrown off a bit by half and 3/4 bales at the end of runs.  Additionally, halfway through the season the co-op asked us to raise our bale weights since they were coming in too light for their taste; we reluctantly complied.  Column Definition: The average weight of bales in kg’s.

Picking Window (days):  Our goal is to compress the picking window for all varietals to 8-9 days, assuming the blocks continue to achieve maturity with similar timing to what we’ve seen over the last two years.  This is a critical piece of the aroma puzzle and we’ll continue to put an outsized effort into harvest timing.  Next season we’ll hugely decrease the window for Motueka, and shrink the Nelson Sauvin window as well.  Picking times and windows were dictated by our lessee this season, not any physical constraints, so this will be entirely achievable.  Column Definition: The days from when we start picking a varietal to finishing it.

Alpha/Beta/HSI:  These are the standard industry measures and we were pleased with our HSI this season.  As long as we’re getting the aromas we’re looking for we generally aren’t too concerned with the alpha and beta numbers (assuming they aren’t wildly divergent from expected).  Column Definition: The average alpha acids, beta acids and hop storage index.

Overall, the results from the season have been great, despite the fact that it was a tough growing season.  We had a good harvest, and feel we’ve gained valuable insights to help us improve next year.  We’ll continue to pursue our goal of growing extraordinary hops through experimentation and further refining our processes, while we continue to chase improvement in quality, aroma, and flavor of the hops.