Ruhstaller Farm + Yard

 6:27 a.m., July 11, 2015, near Dixon, California

We Grow BeerOne-hundred seventy miles from home, my husband Hugo steers the car into an empty dirt parking lot. “Are you sure you got the date right?” he asks, observing the rustic surroundings at Ruhstaller Farm + Yard.

“Positive.”

“Maybe this isn’t the right place.”

“Look at the ‘We Grow Beer’ sign,” I say as a second car pulls into the lot. Soon a third car is turning in. I bid Hugo goodbye and jump out, ready for Hop School.

Along with barley, water and yeast, hops are essential to beer, serving for bittering and aroma. Indian Pale Ales and certain other styles popular with American craft brewers can use up to five or six hop varieties in a single beer.

Ruhstaller Farm taproom manager, Jenn

Ruhstaller Farm taproom manager, Jenn

“Vine” plants, grapes and wisteria for example, produce runners that climb by wrapping tendrils around a support. Hops grow on “bines,” runners with tiny sticky hairs that wrap around a support. Because hop bines can grow up to 25 feet, workers run thick strings up to metal cables high above. Brush an arm, leg or face by a bine without a support and you’ll see how effectively they try to latch onto just about anything. Hence, our instructions beforehand to wear long pants and long sleeves.

After a quick breakfast of bagels and coffee, we take a brief tour of the facility where Cascade, Centennial and Nugget hops thrive. Willamettes, less so. Jenn, our instructor, also manages the taproom at The Farm. One of my classmates is a fledgling homebrewer, another works part-time in Ruhstaller’s Sacramento taproom and the third is an adventuresome woman who scuba dives and travels. They and Jenn are all thirtyish, give or take a few years.

Luis stripping bines

Luis stripping bines

To get to the hop field, we walk five minutes along a dirt road with a seemingly endless tomato field on one side. In the hop field, we join regular workers Pedro and Luis and Pedro’s daughter, Fabiola. Our first task, Jenn explains, is to strip the leaves from the first two or three feet of each bine. Luis, an older man, pulls out heavy-duty gloves, grabs a bine-wrapped rope with one hand and runs his other hand down it, neatly removing all the leaves.

We were also instructed to bring gloves. I pull out my thin gardening gloves and ask if they’re okay. Pedro smiles, shrugs and say in Spanish, “They’re gonna tear.” Another classmate produces hers—rubber kitchen gloves. Both men stifle a laugh. “No van a durar,”—Those won’t last—Luis says. The other two classmates don’t have any gloves. Luis and the rubber glove lady each offer one of theirs.

Luis and I fall in together, working our way down a long row of Cascades, him instructing, me trying to keep up. Being bilingual has its advantages. I hear stories of Luis’s 11 children and his amnesty during the Reagan administration. Hops require a lot of water, which encourages weed growth around the area. I quickly step into a boggy spot which means I’m now walking with a layer of mud clamped to the soles of my hiking shoes. Before we start the second row, I shed my long-sleeve top and carefully apply sunblock. Half a row in, Fabiola, who speaks flawless English, asks, “The bines don’t make your arms itchy?”

Pedro with his rosadera stuck into a pole identifying Nugget hops

Pedro with his rosadera stuck into a pole identifying Nugget hops

I pull the long-sleeved shirt back on and stick a Buff on my head to staunch the sweat rolling into my eyes. Before long, a classmate wearing only a T-shirt has red welts on his arms. I’ve chosen to ignore instructions and wear shorts, so I’ve got scratches on my legs. Meanwhile, Pedro and Luis are outstripping (pun intended) us amateurs by the minute.

After a break, I’m working near Pedro, who slashes a scythe through weeds with great ease. Soon, I’ve talked my way into a lecture on use of a rosadera. “Always cut away from the hop plant,” Pedro says as he demonstrates. “One wrong cut, and this whole bine,” he says, pointing twenty feet up, “is gone.” He watches and coaches. Eventually, he leaves me behind, wielding his scythe as easily as Luis stripes leaves.

I slash and pull and strip. The minutes tick by. The day warms up. The conversations are interesting, but the work is monotonous. My back hurts. I check my watch. Three minutes have gone by. Luis tells me fascinating field stories, like the one about the young guy, sent by the boss, who showed up late, worked little and took a 45-minute bathroom break. He lasted a few days.

Leslie gets the hang of a rosadera

Leslie gets the hang of a rosadera

Finally, eleven o’clock arrives and the class heads back to the yard where Jenn serves up ice cold Ruhstaller beers and we wait for the deli sandwiches. About the time lunch arrives, Pedro and Luis come from the fields.

Around noon, I say my goodbyes and leave with Hugo, who picks me up for the return ride to Monterey. The thirty-something crowd is enjoying the shade and the brews. Pedro and Luis are about to head back to the fields.

The next beer I drink, I’ll raise my glass to all the Pedros and Luises who made it possible. I hope you’ll join me.

Click here for more information on Ruhstaller’s Hop School.

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