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Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Hops But Were Afraid to Ask

Last Friday, the summer heat finally rolled up from California and licked the Beaver State like the tongue of Satan. That was, by serendipity, also the day the Oregon Hops Commission led a small tour of the hop fields around Brooks. The group included largely brewers, all of whom brought along samples, so as we rolled out into the fields, our resistance to the sun's debilitating rays were extra low. Nevertheless, we forged on. In the course of the afternoon, we visited five growers and in the process, I picked up a ton of handy info. No doubt some of it will be familiar to some of you, but perhaps not all. Therefore I will sprinkle the nuggets of wisdom (if not nuggets of Nuggets) in posts throughout the week. Today, a primer on commercial production of the plant closest to every craft beer lover's heart.

The Humulus Lupulus is a remarkably energetic herbaceous perennial that can grow a foot a day and, in the wild, cover entire trees--but only in certain conditions. Hops require at least 15 hours of daylight and therefore can only be grown between 35 and 55 degrees latitude. They do better in drier climates, but require a lot of water; they are also subject to a number of diseases and infestations. As a consequence, commercial production is isolated to just a few regions, with over 85% of the world’s output grown in Germany, the US, China, and the Czech Republic. In the United States, all commercial hops are grown in the Northwest.

It's not a crop planted lightly. To get started, growers must erect rows of 20-foot-tall wires for the plants to climb. They must also have specialized harvest equipment to pull the vines down in the fall. Add the cost of land in agriculturally productive regions like Yakima and the Willamette Valley and the expense of bank loans and drip irrigation (which hop growers seem to uniformly employ), and you've got a slate of very high fixed costs. And to make matters even worse, plants don't reach commercial viability for three years. As a consequence, a new grower would have to have hundreds of thousands--or possibly millions--of dollars just to get started. No wonder, then, that there are only 84 growers in the entire country--35 in Oregon, five in Idaho, and the rest in Washington. Oregon produces just 15% of the total crop; Washington is the big dog, accounting for 77%.

The hop cone itself is produced only by female plants and is called a "strobile;" the vines are actually "bines" (bines climb by encircling a vertical object, while vines send out little tendrils, like hands, to latch on). Each variety of hop is different, and for the grower, each one presents its own challenge. Some are more susceptible to mildew (powdery or downy) or bugs (spider mites and aphids), some don't grow as well, and some don't produce as well. Hop yield varies by variety; a grower may only get a thousand pounds per acre of Fuggles, but twice that in Cascade. When you ask a grower what her favorite hop strain is, she'll give you a very different answer than a brewer--they like to see lush, healthy plants and care little about notes of lemon or lavender.

Of course, hop growers can't just plant the most hardy and productive plants--they have to grow the varieties brewers want. And this was, to me, the most fascinating element of the business. When we visited John Arren's farm, he told us about his newly-productive fields of Sorachi Ace (which piqued Matt Van Wyk's interest) and Mt. Rainier, as well as experimental types like Furano Ace and Shenshawabi (spelling?). Starting sometimes with a single rhizome, Arren will begin production on a new strain. He adds a few rows to see how the hop behaves and if it looks good, he'll plant a small field. At that point, if the hop has flourished, Arren has to find a brewer who will use it. When he was going through the process with Sorachi Ace, he managed to find one who was keenly interested, so he knew that he had a buyer--but that's not always the case. "It's a huge crap-shoot," he said when I asked him about this. "It can take ten years to get up to full production." If that hop isn't popular, or if it somehow becomes more trouble than it's worth to grow, they pull the entire field out and start over. Annen, in fact, was just about to pull his German Hallertauers out for lack of market.

Fortunately, the relationship between craft brewers and hop growers has been beneficial to both. Growers like Annen can coordinate with brewers ahead of time to try to find a market for experimental hops. In earlier decades, growers did all their business with the big beer companies, which regularized and streamlined things, but gave growers less flexibility. The growers we spoke to have slowly been giving more of their crops over to craft breweries. Doug Weathers now sells 75% of his crop to craft brewers; Annen works almost exclusively with craft brewers.

And of course, Oregon breweries have a big advantage here. They can visit the fields, develop relationships with the growers, and can hand-select their hops on-site. Van Havig, who was on the tour, told me that this close relationship is relatively new and comes almost entirely from the fresh hop phenomenon. Brewers had to visit the fields to get their hops and so began to work directly with growers. Now they work with growers year-round.

I have talked a lot about how "beer is local." Generally I mean to say that the types of beer we like and the way we like to drink it are local expressions of beer culture. Historically, though, this axiom applied more to the ingredients--brewers could only make beer from what was available to them. In Oregon, it means both. Oregon breweries have a unique advantage over brewers nationwide in their access to hop fields. I've always wondered about a causal link between Northwest beer, strident hopping, and locally-grown hops came in, and it's still a mystery. There doesn't seem to be any particular reason locals should like hoppy beers more than anyone else--but of course they do. And now that they do, the die is cast: hops are going to remain the definitive element of Northwest beer for decades to come. Good thing brewers have a good supply.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this great post! It contains excellent information, especially for those of us who aren't exactly up on our hops.