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Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Has the Pacific Northwest Lost Its Hop Monopoly?

Since I was out not laboring on Labor Day, I missed a potential story hook: the rise of hop farming outside the Pacific Northwest. Colorado, Wisconsin, and New York and New England--and probably elsewhere that I missed, too. These are small concerns and the industry--such as it is--is in the fragile incipient stages. Hop acreage in these states is miniscule by comparison to the Pacific Northwest. (Oregon has 4,600 acres under cultivation and Washington a booming 24,300; Colorado has 75 and Wisconsin and the Northeast similarly measure their acreages in the tens, not thousands.)

Still, these are real numbers. An acre of hop fields produces over 2,000 pounds of hops, so that wee Colorado planting is going to produce around 150,000 pounds of hops. That's not going to go far at Budweiser, but these growers aren't working with In-Bev, they're working with craft brewers:
Hamm said the association is a "loose group" of mostly part-time hop growers who are working toward establishing their own full-fledged operations to supply the state's craft brewers.

Those brewers, like Odell Brewing Co. in Fort Collins, would like to buy as much Colorado-grown hops as possible to support the fledgling industry.

Joe Mohrfeld, Odell's head brewer, said the brewing company has worked with Colorado State University's specialty crops department to obtain hops for its "Hand Picked Pale Ale" and other special seasonal beers.
I'd like to highlight three aspects of this development that strike me as very promising:
  1. Localizing of beer. I have long longed for the return of more traditional modes of brewing, in which local ingredients went into local beer. Until rail, refrigeration, and industrialization (that is, for 98% of brewing history), beer was necessarily local. The beer tasted of the land in which it was produced. Because each agricultural region is unique, different strains will grow better in different places, and the beers will naturally adopt a local flavor.
  2. Terroir. At some point Stan Hieronymus will complete his book on hops, and I'm hoping my understanding of terroir takes a quantum leap. What I do know is that the hops that grow well in Yakima aren't the same hops that grow well in the Willamette Valley, nor do identical strains produce identical-tasting hops when grown in these two regions. What do Wisconsin Cascades taste like? What about New York Willamettes (a bizarre thing to write). Will we see Sauk Goldings?
  3. Local businesses. One doesn't want to overstate the wholesomeness of craft brewing on the jobs market. Given the choice, most people would probably rather clean kegs for Budweiser than a seven-barrel craft brewery: the salary and benefits will inevitably be better. But what craft brewing has done is fragment what had become an amazingly clean, streamlined process of producing beer. This gives thousands of entrepreneurs new ways to enter the market. Thanks to craft brewing, we have new distributors, new alehouses, new events coordinators to run all those fests, and now, new hop-growers. (Which includes, lest I fail to mention in, the burgeoning group of organic hop-growers.)
I'm not sure other regions of the country will ever constitute much of a commercial threat to the hop growers in Yakima and the Willamette Valley. (So the answer to my title is no.) But they can have a substantial impact on the way beer tastes and on the kinds of beers that are in the market. And in that we can happily rejoice.


  1. Don't forget about Michigan:

    It's not a PNW monopoly but more of a hop broker monopoly which small farmers in the northwest and elsewhere are trying to bust.

  2. No Zach, it's a PICKER monopoly. How many of those do they have in Michigan?

  3. Technically, New York had the original monopoly and lost it to the Pacific Northwest a hundred years ago!

  4. Further to Colorado hops production:

    Reportedly, Colorado State University has been researching / promoting Colorado hops production since 2002. New Belgium and Odell Brewing [and perhaps other] Companies have provided research funding.

    The Colorado Hop Growers Association was formed this year.

    There are more than a half dozen hops farms in Western Slope / Gunnison River valley, some organic.

    A half dozen Colorado craft breweries are producing fresh/wet hopped beers from this years Colorado harvest.

    Dale Katechis and co. planted 8 hops varieties on 2 acres of the Oskar Blues Hops and Heifers farm near Longmont.

  5. I consider this great news. As much as I love Willamette and Cascade that comes in from the Northwest, from a homebrewing stance these products have to be packaged and shipped thousands of miles to get to my local shop in Michigan. Thank goodness they've recently been able to get more hops grown regionally and in-state.

  6. RE: Pioneer hops
    . . . probably too late; regardless:

    Breweries were established in the Colorado Territory; eg, Denver, Nov 1859; Denver, 1866.

    ?Where did they get hops?

    Many pioneer Colorado brewers were German immigrants; Bauer, Coors, Tascher, Voegtle, Weisenhorn, Zang, et al.

    The National Union of United Brewery Workmen union, founded 1886, conducted convention and published their proceedings in German until 1903.