By Patty Mamula
For the Oregon Beer Growler
The McMenamins experience is one that is simultaneously unique and connected to the cosmic center that holds together the magical collection of quirky brewpubs. Its celebration of the fall hop harvest perfectly illustrates the company’s originality.
In early September, McMenamins brewers make identical batches of Thundercone Fresh Hop Ale on the same day. Then about two weeks later, they release the Thundercone, again on the same day, at all brewery locations. The same beer plays out a little differently at each spot. The process of making Thundercone was aptly named the “Running of the Brewers” by Brian McMenamin when the beer was first introduced seven years ago.
“When fresh-hop brews became popular, we decided to try one,” said Rob Vallance, brewery general manager. “And Northwest fresh hops are the grandfather of all hops. My predecessor approached Doug Weathers, the owner of Sodbuster Farms in Salem,” he said.
Sodbuster is a family farm that grows more than 14 varieties of aromatic and bittering hops and has been cultivating the crop since 1958. They sell hops to many local breweries and were happy to add McMenamins to the list.
Vallance said, “Cascade hops were the most popular and best known, so we decided to go with Cascade hops that first year.”
A team of brewers known as the Recipe Development Squad decided on a style and ingredients. “They didn’t want an IPA,” said Vallance, “so they went with an American pale ale with Pilsner and Carastan malts. Nothing has changed. The base is still the same. The hops may vary from year to year.”
Hop harvest in the Northwest traditionally begins the first or second week of September. As that time approaches, the Thundercone team preparation gets into full swing.
“We start planning in mid-August,” said Jessica Standley, brewery administration, public relations and social media. “We can’t over-plan. We usually get a three-day notice before the harvest day. That’s part of the unique quality of the Running of the Brewers.”
Weathers, the hop expert, maintains close connections with his brewing partners and determines the harvest date. He chooses the variety that looks best each year. Last year it was Simcoe. This year the hop variety will be Cascade. “We are shooting for a harvest and brew date of Sept. 7,” Vallance said.
The brewers at the 21 breweries make sure they have all their other ingredients on hand, prepare the mash bill and prep the wort so they can drop the fresh hops in the brew the minute they arrive. (No easy feat, to be sure.)
On harvest day, brewery managers show up at the farm early in the morning. The hop bines are cut, the cones are separated and the sticky, green hops are put into 30-pound burlap totes.
Then the fun begins. The delicate flavors of fresh hops are diminished by time and temperature. The Running of the Brewers helps ensure the temperamental flowers are quickly and safely delivered to 21 different breweries. “We all take varying routes and full totes of hops, and within hours they will be going into the brew,” said Standley. “We go in completely different directions. We have eight or nine routes with multiple stops. The largest route has six locations.”
Vallance coordinates the assorted vehicles and drivers. “So far we’ve been lucky enough not to have any major last minute catastrophes,” he said. The brewery that’s farthest north is McMenamins Mill Creek, some 235 miles from Sodbuster. The north Washington brewery manager takes the hops to that location and makes stops in Olympia and Bothell, which is home to the new Anderson School. The southernmost deliver goes to McMenamins Roseburg Station and Pub. Lincoln City’s Lighthouse Brewpub is a stand-alone delivery. Although McMenamins has numerous locations throughout Oregon and Washington, 65 in all, most of the breweries are near the I-5 corridor, meaning they are situated just hours from the fresh hops.
Justin Azevedo, the Wilsonville brewer, will be making Thundercone for his third year. “We all have the same brew sheets and the same grains. The hops might change from year to year. They are a late kettle addition. We want to preserve all the delicate flavor.” Azevedo continued, “The neat thing from a brewing perspective is the similar concept to terroir with grapes. The hops are right out of the field; the fresh hops preserve all the flavors of the fields.”
Azevedo feels fortunate that Wilsonville is so close to Sodbuster, and he’s one of the first locations to receive the hops. “This is one of our biggest events,” he said. “Everyone gets ready for when the hops come in. It’s a fun, seasonal treat.”
Standley tracks the exact time that hops arrive at the breweries, the distance traveled and other fun stats, like how many cups of coffee were consumed during the Running of the Brewers. All this information, plus photos, are posted online at mcmenamins.com/Thundercone.
Vallance said that all the brew houses receive the same amount, about 30 pounds, with two exceptions. The new Anderson School will receive close to 50 pounds and Edgefield will get about 100 since these two sites have bigger systems.
The Running of the Brewers is organized chaos over one day, leading to the release of Thundercone Fresh Hop Ale several weeks later. “It’s usually all gone within a couple weeks, a month at the most,” said Vallance.
Start looking for it mid-September and order it as often as you can.
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.