FORT CALHOUN — At 10 a.m., the pickers start coming.
They roll up in trucks and sedans. They walk in cowboy boots and flip-flops.
They say things like I'm Ivan, We're Gavin and Michaela, I'm Phyllis and am just here for the ride.
They grab beer from the keg in Steve Bauman's garage, they grab seats at the card tables in Steve Bauman's yard and then they grab leafy vines that Steve Bauman cut down.
Then they start picking Steve Bauman's hops.
This act of plucking the soft, green, pinecone-looking flower of the hop plant from its vine is one of the first steps in making beer. It is not unlike the last step, drinking it.
Both stages call for a table and some friends and family and strangers. Both stages involve joshing and storytelling and making connections.
I went to high school with your mother. … I remember that time when your sister and my daughter threw that party. … I go to graduate school with Dwight. …
It is before noon on a Saturday, but it feels like 5 o'clock somewhere as more join the harvest party.
* * *
Steve Bauman is an accidental hops farmer.
One January day in 2008, the longtime underwriter at Mutual of Omaha saw an article about how a shrinking hops supply and a growing demand for craft beer has more than tripled the price of the crop.
Bauman considered the rise of farm-to-table preferences. He thought about his horticulture major in college and his early foray into planting before it seemed too iffy a prospect for supporting his wife and four children. He considered his 10 acres, his small-crop trials over the years.
And just as fast as you can spell the word “hops,” Bauman was on the phone. He called the owner of Nebraska's then-largest craft brewery, Empyrean in Lincoln. He ordered rhizomes and built a tepee-like trellis. And he leaned on a childhood helping on a family farm in Falls City, that old college major and his own experiences. He taught himself about hops and that spring he planted.
Hops (humulus lupulus) contains an orangey-yellow powdery substance called lupulin. Dunk the hops in a boiling vat of brew, and the lupulin releases an acid that makes the brew bitter and adds a natural preservative. Dunk the hops in toward the end, and the flavor and aroma become more intense.
Hops were first grown in China and entered Europe as early as 768 — the European emperor Charlemagne's father, Pepin the Short, mentions hop gardens in his will.
Today, Germany is the world's principal hops producer. In the U.S., Washington, Oregon and Idaho are the top hops-growing states.
Bauman reaped his first hops crop in August 2008. He called several Nebraska breweries, including the Upstream in Omaha. His timing couldn't have been better. It just so happened the Upstream needed some hops.
* * *
Upstream Brewing Co. brews beer in 500-gallon batches at its downtown and west Omaha restaurants.
The Upstream may use anywhere from 3 pounds to 45 pounds of hops in a single batch. More hops can mean a more bitter taste — like the India Pale Ale or extra strong bitter varieties. But more hops don't necessarily mean more bitterness.
Brewing is chemistry, and hops are added to the boil at three stages to balance the sweet taste of malt and, add taste and aroma.
The following year, Bauman expanded his crop. He erected 16-foot-tall four-by-fours planted at each row's end. He strung wire to connect the wood studs and then tied on sisal string that dropped 16 feet to the ground. Once the budding hop plants began to take off, he tied them to the string so they could grow vertically on what are called “bines.”
“Bines, with a b,” Bauman corrected me when I kept referring to the plants as growing on vines.
Bauman showed me the difference. He clutched a handful of grape vines on his property and showed how those send tendrils shoot off in all directions, clinging to everything. Bines grow in one direction and do best when stretched aloft.
The Baumans use a little Miracle Gro but otherwise no chemicals. The fertilizer and the treated wood beams keep the plants from being certified as organic.
Hops are perennial. They grow all summer and once August rolls around, the bines have grown over the 16-foot string and are hanging down. The green hop flowers are cones and measure about an inch or so in length.
Harvesting means a ladder, pruning shears and many hands around the table to pluck all the hop cones off the bine.
Bauman filled his two-car garage with specially built drying racks. He plugged in a space heater, two dehumidifiers and a fan. Drying takes a full day or longer at 100 degrees.
Most breweries use machine-picked and pulverized hops that come in pellet form and look like rabbit food. Industrialized hops offer consistency, ease and variety depending on where they are grown. Whole-leaf hops tend to clog brewer kettles, take up more room but offer the freshness of being grown locally.
The Upstream uses hops from places like Germany, the Czech Republic, England and the Pacific Northwest.
Head brewer Dallas Archer tells me why he likes Bauman's hops: “We get to monitor the process more. We can visit the farm. We can help him pick the hops. We can drink the beer together.”
* * *
The one thing this crop doesn't make is money. Bauman thinks he grows enough to break even. Ramping up production would require a big investment in machinery and time.
Steve and Sue, who are 60 and have grandchildren, aren't sure they want to go big-time. So they started the nonprofit Nebraska Hop Growers Association, pulling neighbors and friends into the craft beer trend. Five breweries, including one that revives the old Storz name, have opened or are planning to soon.
* * *
I drive out to the Bauman place one Saturday morning to see the hops up close.
This year there are more hops than ever to harvest. Bauman's crop was flush. His biggest yet.
And his neighbors, Kevin and Shelly Schwedhelm, caught the bug and are reaping their first hops harvest, too.
The two families borrowed a machine built by a Prague, Neb., farmer who also grows hops. The stripper is a big plywood box that contains two rollers that gently knock off the hop cones.
Like anything, the mechanized way is faster. And it fosters teamwork.
But it's nothing like having a cold fancy Upstream beer while sitting at a table talking about work, hobbies, family and surprises about hops (how easy they are to pick, how fun this is, how your hands smell like beer, etc.).
The only one not plucking hops is Steve Bauman.
Bauman is climbing a ladder in the hop rows, cutting down 16-foot bines, bringing them to the table.
He flashes a smile at the group, a crop he will nourish with hot dogs, corn on the cob and, of course, beer.
What do hops need?
“Thirty new friends,” he said. “Every year.”