Party On: Harvest Festival At The Hops

A pile of hops waiting to be picked.

Take 30+ curious beer aficionados and a bumper crop of hops. Throw in a delicious barbeque and a keg of Altitude Brewing’s best thirst-quenching brew. Mix with a dollop of music and you have yourself a recipe for the Garston Hops 2019 Hop-Picking Party.

The Big Hops Harvest Problem:

200 hop vines on two farms —  all of them covered in ripe, cone-shaped flowers. A tiny window of time in which to pick them —  and only two busy farmers both trying to juggle multiple farm jobs. The big hop companies have this process all mechanised, but we’re a tiny outfit, just starting out.

What to do?

The Brilliant Solution:

James, as usual, had an idea.

“Let’s get a sponsor, a couple of experts and a whole lot of people who would love to know more about hops and throw a Picking Party,” he suggested.

So, that’s what we did.

Waiting For The Harvesters

The day dawned damply. River mist shrouded the paddocks, evaporating our plans for an early start to the hops harvest.

Just as well, really. We’d all been flat out preparing the woolshed —  aka the hops harvest zone — for the last two days. Rarely has a working woolshed looked cleaner.

Waiting for the sun enforced a last minute calm before the storm of activity set to come. That’s why, after the final job was done, we gathered for coffee at the Garston Hotel and waited for our workers guests to arrive.

And, suddenly, there they were:

  • Eliott the Altitude brewer, with his vanload from Queenstown
  • Richard – our expert from Nelson
  • Ian – courtesy of our sponsor, Ricoh
  • Andy – an unexpected American  
  • and a whole bunch of local family and friends.

The sun shone bright and warm. Finally, it was time to begin.

Gathering At The Hops

The convoy wound its way to the vines. For many, this was the first time they had seen hops growing and I must admit, even our small plantation makes for an impressive sight.

Hops will grow as high as you let them (in our case 4 – 5 metres) and produce copious amounts of flowers, all filled with a distinctive-smelling resin. This is the gold that flavours the beer.

At the top of the ladder, Eliott cuts the first hop vine.
Eliott mounted our specially-modified hop-picking ladder and ceremoniously cut the first vine. Nearby pickers held out their arms to catch the leafy giant as it slowly collapsed and carried it to the waiting trailer.

The party was underway.

Picking Off The Hops

It would be highly impractical to try to pick all the flowers off the vines while they’re still standing 5 metres tall. I’ve picked them off the top several times while getting samples for testing and, believe me, the novelty soon wears off.

A better idea is cutting the vines at the top and bottom and carting the whole vine to the processing room. That lets you lay them flat on a table and have multiple people plucking the flowers from each vine.

So that’s what we did on the tables set up in Hamish’s woolshed.

Picking the hop flowers at the woolshed.
With Mac’s favourite shearing music (60’s classics) booming in the background, conversation buzzed as we got to work on the 2019 hops harvest.

Garston Hotel Makes The Best Barbeque Lunch

It wasn’t long after the Garston Hotel cooks appeared before delicious smells filled the woolshed.

They had brought an incredible array of delicious rolls, salads and food to barbeque. And after several hours of steady picking, everyone was more than ready to gather outside in the sun for lunch. Eliott had provided a keg of light, delicious beer from his brewery and that went down a treat.

We All Learn More About Hops And Beer.

Richard Schneeberger was our invaluable expert who was taking a busman’s holiday from his day job as a hop adviser in Nelson. Up until now, we’ve been going on guesswork and advice from afar, so it was wonderful to have Richard right there to answer our questions.

After lunch, both Richard and Eliott spoke and gave highly interesting and informative glimpses into their hop-and-beer worlds.

But, hops won’t pick themselves, so we up-ended our beer glasses and went back to work.

Next Stage: Drying Begins

Between our plantation and Hamish’s we had four hop varieties to harvest and keep separate from each other. They were all destined to go straight to Altitude Brewing so Eliott could make his 2019 version of a Garston Green Hops beer.

Or so we thought.

But the truth soon dawned: somehow we had not fully computed just how many thousands of flowers we’d actually have. There was no way that Altitude could take them all as green hops. Some would have to be dried.

So we resurrected the drying racks that Aaron Abernethy built for us back in 2017 and Plan B swung into action.

Hops drying in their racks.
The drying process can be tricky to get right. In the days after the harvest party, Hamish and I had a crash course in deciding when the flowers were ready to bag. It was different from previous years because these hops were going to be pelletised. They had to be dry enough to keep – but not TOO dry or they’d disintegrate in the pelletiser. The pressure was on because once the flowers are ready, the heat and air they needed to dry then become their enemies. They must then be completely protected from light, air and heat or the flowers will begin to deteriorate.

Finally Finished And We Give Heartfelt Thanks

At the end of Day One we gathered at the Garston Hotel for a celebratory drink. It had been a wonderful, hard-working and satisfying day.

Our new Queenstown friends, and our local friends and family headed home, happy with their new experience.

Eliott was already busy with plans to begin his green hop brew.

And we were making plans for the next day’s harvest.

In the end, it took four days to pick and process the flowers from our 200 vines. Many local friends and family came back again and again to help over those days and we are so grateful to them for their help.

To all those who came to the party, WE COULDN’T HAVE DONE IT WITHOUT YOU.

Thank you, too, to RICOH, whose sponsorship of our event is truly appreciated.

We can truly recommend the Garston Hotel’s delicious barbecue lunches. Thanks, guys, for coming to the party – and for all the other meals we ate at your establishment.

And, finally, thanks to Dwane and Annie Herbert for lending us so many crates. They are invaluable and we needed every one of them.

Your Thoughts

Did you come to the hop picking party? Let us know how you enjoyed the experience in the comments below?

Does a hops harvest on this miniature scale sound like fun? Want to join in on next year’s party? You can comment below or send me a message.

You Might Also Love…

Our 2018 harvest was an exciting, but far smaller affair. You can read how our venture began in

Hops in a hurry

Altitude Brewing is the Frankton Brewery which has so far taken all the hops we can produce. Our aim of supplying small and local fits right in with their environmental ethics so it’s a win for all. Enjoy reading about Eliott Menzies and Eddie Gapper of Altitude Brewing in

Altitude Brewing: The Great Adventure

Aaron Abernethy is not only the valley’s go-to-engineer for all farm machinery needs, he is also a talented metalwork sculptor. Read all about Aaron’s beautiful creations in

Aaron Abernethy: Starlight Metal Art and Sculpture

Dwane and Annie Herbert are staunch supporters of Athol and Garston locals. Even though they’ve now moved their fishing business south they were still more than willing to lend us their new, clean crates.

Dwane Herbert: A Spearfishing Legend

Walnut Trees On The Farm

Walnuts from the walnut trees on the farm.

Planting Our Baby Walnut Trees.

The McNamee family had a few walnut trees planted on the roadside near the home farm, so Grandma always had plenty of nuts to spare.

Long ago, when we popped our transportable house onto its current site, we created a perfect orchard space just over the fence. But while I was still procrastinating over the best fruit trees to choose, Terry decided to plant walnuts instead.

So one afternoon we packed up spades, containers and our four kids and trundled off to Grandma’s. There were plenty of sturdy little saplings growing under the old trees. We dug up a dozen and planted them over the fence.

Hindsight’s a wonderful thing. I wish I knew then what I know now. Back then, I thought all walnuts were the same. Now, I know there are Black walnuts and English walnuts. The difference is important.

Black Walnuts are small and the shells are thick and hard to crack. It’s almost impossible to extract the whole walnut from these tough nuts. These walnuts are mostly used to supply beautiful hardwood for  furniture.

We have many Black Walnut trees in our grove.

English Walnuts are larger and sweeter than their Black Walnut cousins. These are the eating nuts.

We have only a few of these – and how I wish we had more.

They’re easy to open and far more versatile to cook with, so these are mainly the nuts that I collect. The black walnuts we leave for other creatures to eat.

Walnut Trees on the farm.
The walnut trees that took over my orchard space more than 20 years ago. There’s some debate in our family as to the exact year they were planted.

Race For The Walnuts

Northern hemisphere nut-gatherers often have to race with the squirrels to collect their nuts. We don’t have squirrels in New Zealand but there are plenty of other animals who think that walnuts are a tasty treat.

Possums love to crunch them up and we often spot them up in the walnut trees at night. Rats love them too, and the birds will peck holes in the softer shells to eat the nuts inside.

Even the dogs sometimes crunch on a hard green outer fruit, only to spit them out in disgust when they reach the nut inside.

Harvesting Walnuts From The Trees

April (which is Autumn in the Southern Hemisphere) is when our nuts usually ripen and fall from the trees. Sometimes, we feel like we are gazing at those stubbornly attached nuts for days and days. But when the strong nor’wester wind begins to blow, suddenly they all fall overnight. Next morning, the ground under the walnut trees will be covered in nuts.

The first essential of walnut harvesting is having a good pair of gloves. Freshly harvested nuts will stain your hands an interesting shade of greeny-brown which can take days to wear off.

 Two nuts on the tree in their green rind.
These black walnuts are not quite ready to fall. Soon the rind will split and let the nuts fall from the tree branches to join those covering the ground.

On the trees, a thick, green rind encases the walnuts. When they’re ripe, this rind will often split open and let the inner nut fall cleanly to the ground.

Sometimes, however, the whole thing falls intact. Then you have to crack open the rind and pull out the damp-shelled nut inside. That’s when your hands are most in danger of walnut stains.

Next, You Need To Dry The Nuts

At this stage, the inner nutmeat is pale, soft and insipid. So we dry the nuts in their shells for a few days. That allows them to develop that familiar walnut flavour and crunch.

You can’t always tell from the outside how good the inside nutmeat will be. Sometimes we’ll open a perfect-seeming case and find a shrivelled specimen inside. Two years ago we had a terrible season, where every second walnut had rotted away inside. At least, that’s how it seemed to me when I was shelling them.

Nuts still  in their shells, drying in a box.
I bring the walnut shells inside and spread them out by the fire in the lounge. I’ve had some lovely flower arrangements given to me over the years and have saved these very handy long boxes from the florist. They make perfect walnut-dryers.

3 Ways To Store Walnuts

Unshelled

  • Unshelled nuts will stay fresh for years in cool, dry conditions.
  • Keep them in large bins, ready to scoop out as you need them.

😊 if you have plenty of storage space in a shed, garage or carport.

😦 if you’re time-poor and just want shelled nuts NOW!

Frozen

  • Get into production mode and spend a few nights watching TV and shelling all your nuts..
  • Pop them into repurposed plastic bags e.g. bread bags or resealable frozen veggie or cereal bags.
  • Freeze the bags. They stack easily and the nuts won’t stick together.

😊 if you have a large freezer.

😦 if you have a tiny freezer or don’t watch TV.

Vacuum Sealed

😊 if you’re into vacuum sealing and have shelf space in your pantry.

😦 are you ultimately adding unnecessary plastic waste into the world?

I’ve Got My Walnuts — What Next?

In health circles walnuts are now described as a superfood. They’re easy to eat by themselves but delicious in cooking too.

Check out What To Do With A Walnut for recipes and more walnut  tips.

What To Do With A Walnut

Walnut picture montage

Walnut trees are both a valuable source of food and wood and come in several varieties. Some produce beautiful nuts, perfect for eating. Others are much sought-after for their furniture-grade hardwood.

We have both sorts on our farm — but we didn’t realise that when we planted them. Now that I’m older and a little wiser, I appreciate the joys of having these abundant and beautiful trees on my doorstep.

Here are a few reasons why I’m so pleased to have walnuts in my life.

Walnuts Keep You Healthy

Walnuts are a rich source of monounsaturated fats and an excellent source of those hard to find omega-3 fatty acids. We’re always being told how essential these are to keep your heart healthy.

They’re chock-full of minerals too, including magnesium, potassium, calcium and iron. What a lot you can get just by eating a few walnuts every day.

Recipes

Like most nuts, walnuts can easily be added into your diet.

The easiest way is to simply eat a handful raw each day. Or chop them up and add a handful to your favorite salad, vegetable dish, fruit, or dessert.

But if you get bored with that, or someone in your family doesn’t like eating them raw, here are some of my favourite recipes to try.

Mixed-Grain Salad

Apricot Balls

Candied Walnuts

Walnut Wood

Black Walnut is the variety many craftsmen use to build beautiful, richly-coloured  furniture. But it is by no means the easiest of woods to use.

Walnut trees have a lot of branches and a thick layer of sapwood between their bark and the inner wood which is called the heartwood.

All those branches plenty of knots in the wood which may or may not be a problem for you.

At worst the knots might shrink and fall out, which could weaken the wood. At best they’ll add texture, variety and beauty to your furniture. Often, it’s simply a matter of taste.

Walnut wood can have many variations in colour too. That, and the wide, lighter sapwood ring can make it tricky for a craftsman to work with walnut wood. That’s why some people prefer to layer a walnut veneer on top of another base wood. Many harvested trees actually go to veneer makers rather than being sliced up for timber.

One day, when our trees are past their fruiting best, I hope that we’ll preserve them as a lovely table or dresser.

Can You Really Do This?

I tried this with both a freshly picked nut and a dried nut. The dried nut didn’t have any effect on the scratch on my table, but the fresh nut did reduce it a bit. Not quite as well as in the video, I must say.

New Zealand Walnuts

Walnuts are becoming increasingly popular in New Zealand and the NZ Walnut Industry Group has an interesting website.


Mixed Grain & Walnut Salad

A delicious and filling salad which makes a light main course, or substantial side dish.

Ingredients

  • 1 microwave pottle of “Steamed Grains”  (I use a “Super-Grains Multigrain Blend which includes brown & red rice, buckwheat, quinoa and chia”)
  • 2 cups leafy greens (lettuce, rocket, baby spinach etc)
  • 1 cup sweet grapes (cut in half)
  • 1 cup raw blueberries
  • 1 cup raw pineapple or apple (cut in chunks)
  • ½ cup cheddar cheese (cut into small cubes)
  • ½ cup walnuts (chopped)

Dressing                                          

  • 2 tbsp rice bran oil
  • 4 tbsp lemon juice
  • 1 tsp chia seeds
  • 1 tsp sesame seeds
  • 1 tbsp maple syrup
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Directions

  1. Microwave the mixed grains as recommended on the packet then allow to cool while you prepare the other ingredients.
  2. Toss all the salad ingredients (including the cooled grains) in a large salad bowl.
  3. Tip all the dressing ingredients into a jar with a lid and shake them well to mix.
  4. Pour the dressing over the salad and mix gently.

Serves 2 people as a main course, or 4 as a side dish.

Variations

Substitute cooked quinoa for grains to make this recipe grain-free / paleo.

Substitute any raw fruit for the pineapple or apple portion.

Substitute cherry tomatoes for the grapes

Bowl of mixed grain and walnut salad.
When I made this dish (both to photograph and eat) I discovered that I’d run out of grapes. Since we live an hour away from the nearest supermarket, I couldn’t just pop out to buy some. Fortunately, there were heaps of tiny cherry tomatoes growing in the tunnel house. That’s how I discovered this delicious variation.

Sweet Walnut & Apricot Balls

These Apricot Balls use walnuts, seeds and dried fruit to make a sweet and healthy snack. They will fill you up as well as satisfying sweet cravings.

Ingredients

Ingredients for Apricot Balls
  • 1 ½ cup raw, shelled walnuts
  • ½ cup sunflower and pumpkin seeds (pepitas)
  • 1 cup sultanas
  • ½ cup dried apricots (chopped)
  • ½ cup dried, shredded coconut
  • 2 tbsp peanut butter
  • 1 tbsp runny honey
  • 1-3 tbsp water (as needed)
  • More dried coconut to coat the balls.
  • 1 food processor with an “S” blade.

Directions

  1. Put the nuts and seeds into the food processor and process on high until they are well chopped (but not pulverised into crumbs.)
  2. Add the dried fruit and ½ cup coconut and process again until the fruit is thoroughly chopped and mixed with the nuts.
  3. Add peanut butter and honey and mix on lowest speed.
  4. The mixture should be sticky enough for you to easily form a small ball with your fingers. If not, add 1 – 3 tbsp water and mix again.
  5. Wet your fingers with water (to prevent them from being covered with sticky mixture) and form the fruit and walnut mixture into small balls.
  6. Coat the balls in dried coconut.
  7. Store in the refrigerator, where they will firm up and keep for several weeks.
Sweet walnut and apricot balls

Candied Walnuts

A healthy recipe for a sweet treat.

Ingredients

  • 3 cups shelled, raw walnuts

Caramel

  • 3 tbsp rice bran oil
  • 3 tbsp brown rice syrup
  • 1 tsp cinnamon powder
  • ½  tsp salt

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 180℃.
  2. Put the caramel ingredients into a large saucepan.
  3. Bring them to a rolling boil then simmer for 1-2 minutes. (If you cook this mixture too long the oil and syrup will start to separate.)
  4. Remove saucepan from the heat and add all the walnuts.
  5. Stir very well to coat the walnuts with the hot, sticky mixture.
  6. Tip onto an oven tray, and scrape all the leftover caramel over the nuts.
  7. Cook for 5 minutes, then stir the nuts well to coat them again.
  8. Cook a further 5 minutes
  9. Remove from oven and scrape onto another tray to cool. Clean the caramel off the tray immediately (or it will harden and become difficult to clean.)
  10. Once cool, keep the nuts in an airtight jar.

Variations

Brown rice syrup is a fructose-free sugar alternative, which makes this recipe ideal for those who are eating a low-sugar diet.

Substitute maple syrup for the brown rice syrup for a sweeter caramel.

Substitute popped corn for walnuts to make this recipe nut-free.

Candied walnuts