Déjà Brew

(page 7 of 8)

A Race Against Time

The two agreed on a handshake deal that Paino would buy all of the hops that McNamara, who planned to plant a small, three-quarter-acre hop field, would grow. The hops would be used for Ruhstaller’s limited-edition “Hop Sac 2012.” The label would also feature the name of McNamara’s farm, Blue Heron Hop Yard, which was named for the birds native to nearby Putah Creek. And unlike the 1881 and the “Capt.” bottles, Paino wraps the Hop Sac bottle entirely in burlap—like a liquid bag of hops—fixed to the bottle with a wire ring. Each piece of burlap and each label will be affixed by hand, with help from Roseville’s PRIDE Industries, a company that employs mentally and physically disabled adults.

It would be, in all likelihood, the first commercially brewed Sacramento beer to use local hops in generations, perhaps since Prohibition. But there was also no guarantee that it would work. Not only had McNamara never grown hops before, but even in legendary hop-growing towns like Sloughhouse, hop farms don’t always yield enough hops for a harvest in the first year.

And then there was the matter of time. There simply wasn’t enough of it.

With only weeks to prepare the crop after their dinner, McNamara had to locate the right hops rootstock, decide on the varietals, purchase 21-foot-long poles that would sink three feet into the ground (he briefly considered old telephone poles), and he needed time to design the layout of the crops. The poles would take three weeks to get, and he was having trouble finding the right rootstock.A bottle of Hop Sac 2102, made from hops grown in Winters, and wrapped in burlap (Photo by Ryan Donahue)

With only about 10 days before he needed to plant, he still hadn’t found the rootstock, and panic began to set in. He had already spent $2,000 on poles, but had nothing to grow. “I was pretty desperate,” he says. But he happened to notice a sign offering rootstock from Washington state on his daily trip to the local Ace Hardware store. He called immediately, and they arrived only three days before he had to plant.

Now he had the supplies, but the preparation time wasn’t the only factor. There was also the issue of rain.

There’s a tiny window of opportunity to plant hops. The land needs enough time to dry after the winter rains in February and March in order to prepare the soil, but planting needs to take place before the rain starts up again. Once it starts raining steadily, it becomes too difficult to plant. There was little room for error. Miss the target date by even a day and McNamara would have to wait an entire year before trying again. “We were playing poker with the weather,” says Sean.

“We didn’t work the soil until the first week of April,” says Craig McNamara. Father and son had been watching the weather closely, racing to get the massive poles secured with wire and getting the rootstock tied to the twine upon which it would grow vertically, like grapevines but only much, much higher. And, in a gesture of goodwill, Dave Utterback passed the proverbial torch to Paino and the McNamaras by donating 30-year-old twine that had come from the Signorotti Hop Ranch. These hops would grow, if they grew at all, on the twine used by the last commercial hop growers in California.

But once the twine was in place, Craig knew there was a problem. The weather reports said rain was still days away, but as a farmer for 35 years, he suspected otherwise. Sean remembers that at the crack of dawn on April 9, a few days before they’d intended to plant, his father called and told him, “We’ve got to do this today.”

At 7 a.m., they started the final preparations for the field and worked all day. By 5 p.m. they were ready to plant. Exhausted, they were going to call it a day, but Craig’s intuition told him they needed to continue. So they planted from 5 p.m. until just after the sun set at 7:40 p.m., finishing half the crop.

At 2 a.m., defying local weather reports, it began to rain.

Scrambling at first light, the McNamaras and several workers finished planting the last of the hops at 11 a.m. It would rain for five days straight. They had nearly missed their window by just a few hours. Had they waited until the next day to start, it would have been too late for the season. “We needed every day that we took,” says Sean.

Now that the hops were planted, the plan was to harvest the hops about five months later, on Aug. 19.

While McNamara was working overtime tending to the crop, Paino was getting to know Dave Utterback better, and the Sloughhouse sod farmer offered Paino the small amount of hops that he was growing in his backyard. Paino would mix the hops from McNamara’s ranch with these. So now, not only would Paino brew a Sacramento beer using local hops from Winters, but also the same strain of hops from the historical epicenter of America’s hop-growing industry.

But as the harvest date grew closer, there was another problem. A big one. Not only had Sean McNamara never planted hops before, he’d never harvested them either. McNamara had set the date of Aug. 19 for the harvest and Paino had been soliciting volunteers via Facebook and other means for weeks in anticipation. Paino wasn’t just looking for free labor, but wanted the community to be a part of the experience. Dozens had pledged their time.

A few weeks before the big day, Paino was visiting the Kuchinski hop farm in Lake County and saw what hops are supposed to look like when they’re ready to be harvested. He beelined back to Winters to inspect McNamara’s hops and realized the date they set was too late. Weeks of higher-than-expected temperatures in July meant that the hops were already ripe. Waiting to pick them would dry them out too much and damage their flavor.