Weird things can happen in a hop field at one in the morning. Stuffing a surprise 200 lb. bale of mystery hops into an already full cargo van is one thing. Also though, envelopment in the overwhelming aroma of hops and the dark walls of nearby trellised fields can bring a long-time brewer feelings of introspection and sentimentality. Follow a hop farmer through his fields in the dark, and a long connection with a bine called humulus lupulus, becomes deeper, more intrinsic. There is also evidence of hard work reaping rewards, hope in a strong future, and a recognition that things in the brewing industry are changing.
Early this September, at the beginning of hop harvest, Quality Manager Derek Stepanski, and I went to the Yakima and Willamette Valleys in Washington and Oregon to immerse ourselves in the hop growing culture for five days. This annual trip is meant to do more than just inspect the quality of the fields and hop cones, or witness the harvest process, or learn the different techniques of kilning and cooling hops. These aspects are traditionally and necessarily important to observe and learn about, but the beer making industry is changing, and it has become just as important to develop long-term relationships with the farmers themselves.
Many of the hop farmers growing these roughly 35,000 acres are 3rd, 4th, 5th generation, and grew up cultivating very few varieties of humulus lupulus. Their granddaddies grew some varieties of high-alpha hops, intended for macro brewers’ demands for high yield and a blendable, homogenous, bitterness that did not need distinctive aromas for their final products’ profiles. These days the farmers are finding that their growth market demands a large amount of high quality aroma hop varieties, and this new dynamic has sparked an interest in the brewing process amongst the younger farmers not previously present in their predecessors.
During the trip we saw several planned pilot breweries at these farms, and the farmers had as many questions about the brewing process as we did the hop growing process. One of these very generous and inquisitive farmers led us through a 16 acre breeding field with 8,500 plants of different, personally cross-pollinated varieties, most of them doomed to extinction by selection, but one or two maybe destined to be the nest Cascade or Simcoe. This symbiotic understanding of each others’ profession can only spark collaboration, innovation, and generation spanning relationships that will be the legendary brand building blocks of the future. It will be key for brewers and farmers to work together to ensure that the future of American brewing can realize its full potential. There will only be so much land, time, and resources to harvest the right amount of varieties and overall yield, and the hop farmers are ready to jump into the awesome challenges ahead of us.
Maybe the best example of this alliance to come out of the trip happened by chance. While over a few beers at the beautiful Bale Breaker Brewery, located in the middle of a hop field, we met a farmer who was very interested in showing us his operations just down the road. During harvest, the machine doesn’t stop when the sun goes down, so at 1:00 am, we were tramping through a dark field of gorgeous Centennials while the sounds of close-by harvesting growled from the darkness. Yep, weird things can happen in a hop field at one in the morning, and after a half-moon tour and a taste of some house beer, our new friend ended up giving us a 200 lb. bale of a wild New-Mexican hop he had been developing on a small lot for the last decade. We stuffed this unexpected treat into our packed cargo van like we were smuggling cocoa leaves out of Columbia and headed to the hotel. I bet that van still smells like hops…
That Neo-Mexicanus variety may or may not have potential, but we as Schlafly brewers have the capability to assist the farmer in determining this potential. Working together like this will be the cornerstone of the grower/brewer understanding that will be necessary in this new multiple variety driven beer market. So raise a glass and toast to the American hop farmer. They bring balance and variety to your favorite beverage and are poised to help propel the American craft beer industry into the next realm of quality aroma and deliciousness. Here, Here!