(This originally appeared as my column in the Winter 2008-9 issue of American Brewer magazine)
With the current instability in the hop supply, brewers are seeking to secure the sources of their precious brewing herb by going – and growing – locally. Localizing the hop industry is a natural progression in an industry that has built itself by and large on the notion that the localness of beer itself is a desirable quality. But what are local hops?
The Cannabaceae family has two genera: Cannabis, which we know as marijuana; and Humulus, which we know as hops. The Humulus genus is believed to have originated in Asia and it has three species, one of which is H. lupulus, the species we know and love as the common brewing hop.
In ecosystems, a species is “indigenous” or “native” to a region if its presence there is not the result of human intervention. The species H. lupulus is native to temperate regions stretching across the northern hemisphere from Japan and China through Europe and over to North America. But the hops used in brewing American beers are derived from European cultivars introduced to America by colonists as early as 1629.
Although hops grow indigenously in the new world, American settlers relied on imports from Europe partly out of tradition and partly because commercial supplies in New England were insufficient to quench the colonial thirst. But where there is thirst, sources of brewing ingredients are bound to be cultivated. So it was by the mid 19th century New York State was producing the majority of the commercial brewing hops in United States. Hop growing thrived in the central and upstate regions where soils were rich and urban beer-drinking populations were nearby. But powdery mildew, downy mildew and then Prohibition put an end to hop growing in the eastern U.S.
Organic hops growing in Colorado. (Photo: Glen Fuller)
Hops enjoyed a brief boom in Wisconsin, where they were introduced by an Englishmen who in 1850 transported plantings from New York to Sauk County, WI. But after a few short decades of tremendous prosperity, the boom was followed by a bust, and although hop growing was attempted there again in the 1930s, they never recovered to the levels of their heyday. Meanwhile, hop growing had taken root in the Pacific Northwest, where it remains to this day, with almost all of the hops used by American brewers being grown in just one place: the Yakima Valley in Washington state (though smaller amounts are also grown in Idaho and Oregon).
But hang on – what are hops, really? There is the scientific classification described above, but consider the functional reasons for hopping beer: flavor, aroma and freshness. In Ethiopia, brewers use the same English word “hops” to refer to a completely different plant known botanically as Rhamnus prinoides, a shrub of the Rhamnaceae family, known in Amharic as gesho. Ethiopians use this native plant in much the same way as Europeans and Americans use H. lupulus, as a flavoring and preservative in beer.
So, with the closest hop fields in either Ethiopia or Washington state, what is a brewer residing in a place like Washington D.C. to do when seeking “local” hops? And why should brewers care about the origin of their hops anyway?
Homebrewer Scot Larson (the author's neighbor) checks on a handful of homegrown hop cones.
For one thing, it’s better business to have a local supply. In the mid-19th century, brewing was thriving in Wisconsin. The locale had plentiful barley and malting operations, access to rivers for transportation, and natural ice that could be used for refrigeration. Growing hops locally was the final piece of the puzzle that helped launch Milwaukee as the nation’s epicenter of commercial beer operations.
Culture is another compelling part of local hop growing. In her 1935 article in the Wisconsin Magazine of History, Mrs. Belle Cushman Bohn fondly recounts the social aspects of her summer hop harvesting days as a young woman in Sauk County:
Men, women, and children flocked to the yards . . . There was something of adventure and change in being with a crowd out-of-doors, having the best meals served three times a day, and lodging provided… If the pickers were young girls, flirtations were apt to be carried on between them and the box-tender… singing in the yards helped to lighten the labor. “Listen to the Mocking Bird” was a great favorite, and sad and sentimental songs such as “Lorena,” “Belle Mahone,” “Lura,” “Billy Boy,” and “Nellie Darling” were sung as choruses, quartets, duets, and solos. . . Evenings were spent telling stories around blazing bonfires built to smudge mosquitoes. Sometimes a fiddler, accordion player, a harmonica or a jew’s-harp performer would entertain the group and if sufficient space could be found—usually a granary or shed—a jolly crowd, augmented by visitors from other yards, would dance after supper till bedtime. Some old couples today remember that their acquaintance began at a hop-picking dance.
But some of the more appealing aspects of these summer picking traditions apparently disappeared when hop growing moved further west. According to Mrs. Bohn, “Unlike the pickers in the West, who are described as roaming transients obliged to provide their own shelter and food, the Sauk County pickers were given the best the farm afforded.”
Local produce, be it hops, blueberries, heather, or anything else useful for brewing, is desirable for the same reasons local beer itself is preferable over a mass-produced commodity shipped from a regional center owned by a global brewing “concern.” Local relationships build stronger communities. And strong communities make life more enjoyable. The act of consuming beer – or producing hops – becomes a worthy part of life in its own right when it is part of a local living economy and community. It is more than just the final step in the work-to-consume treadmill.
Sometimes it takes extreme situations to remind us of what matters. The dearth of creativity in the beer industry of the 1970s helped spark the craft brewing renaissance. Similarly, the shortage of hops this past year has helped ignite a flurry of small-scale hop growing efforts across the country. Here are just a few of those undertakings:
In 2004, serious efforts began New York to renew that state’s hop growing tradition, involving breweries like Ithaca Brewing, as well as the state agricultural extension agency. In 2007, Boston’s Harpoon Brewing Co. brewed their Glacier Harvest Wet Hop beer using fresh hops personally picked by brewer Ray Dobens at a hop yard in Seneca, NY.
Next spring New Mission Organic will plant their inaugural crop in Leelanau, MI, home of the Leelanau Brewing Company.
Lakefront Brewery owner Russ Klisch provided rhizomes to half a dozen farmers in 2008 in attempts to source hops within his storied hop growing state of Wisconsin. He’s had a single bine growing in his own back yard for ten years, so he wanted to see if he could get at least enough cones to brew one “all-Wisconsin” beer this year. He’s also been working with barley growers and a couple maltsters to provide a source of locally grown and malted barley. That project has had mixed success, as have the attempts at hop growing.
One of the most promising prospects was a joint project with the Wisconsin-based Michael Fields Agricultural Institute which specializes in training local farmers in organic growing methods. In 2008, they grew enough organic cascades for a 15 barrel wet hop batch, but unfortunately Lakefront never received the hops.
Joe Schmidt, owner of Milwaukee’s Roots Restaurant, has been growing hops a mere 20 miles away from the Lakefront brewery. His first year was good, but this year the young shoots became a tasty breakfast for the local deer population. But then the neighboring (and apparently tastier) soybeans started to come in and distracted the deer long enough to allow what remained of the hops to struggle on, only to ultimately fall victim to downy mildew.
Both the Institute and Schmidt are planning to keep at it with the plants though and are hoping to yield crops of organic hops in 2009.
The four other farmers who received rhizomes from Lakefront had similarly mixed results. Two were moderately successful their first year, but one got flooded out and the other wound up never planting at all. Interestingly, one of these farmers grows ginseng, a crop that also relies on a trellis system, easing the transition to hops. That farmer reported healthy growth but low total harvest volume.
None of the six noted any sign of mites, one positive sign that with more experience and fine-tuning, Wisconsin may hold promise as a renewed hop growing region.
The Paris View Farm is growing six varieties of organic hops on a ninety acre farm in Paris, Maine but quantities are very small and mainly targeted toward homebrewers.
Morgan Wolaver, owner of Otter Creek Brewing in the town of Middlebury, Vermont, tried growing a row of hops in his own backyard but a variety of difficulties put this trial on the backburner after just one year. But these micro-scale yards may be more than a minor trend. My own neighbor, a newbie homebrewer, has tool the plunge straight away, planting six rhizomes this year and harvesting a couple pounds worth of cones! He and I both brewed a few five gallon batches with them and were really happy with the results. This kind of mini hop yard is growing in popularity as more and more brewers garnish their pub patios with a sprinkling of bines for decorations and use in annual specialty hop harvest brews.
At least two farmers in West Virginia also reported growing organic hops this year, but attempts to confirm their outcome were unsuccessful. And that will undoubtedly be one of the challenges of working with small scale growers – establishing consistency and reliability. Not to mention the Herculean efforts needed to harvest such small scale crops where mechanized picking and processing is impractical or overly expensive.
Glen Fuller inspects his hop yard.
Perhaps the most successful of these small scale efforts is farmer Glen Fuller who grew 4.5 acres this year in Delta County, Colorado (just west of Denver). Having started out with 5,000 plants, he had 4,160 plants to pick when harvest time arrived, a decrease he says he expected due to his limited staff. He planned to sell about 1,500 pounds of hops, representing about 35-45 percent of what he projects the plants will produce after a couple more years when he estimates their one-year profit will reach $150,000.
His crop attracted the attention of researchers Dr. Ron Godin and Ali Hamm who helped organize a training workshop that drew farmers from as far as California and Nebraska to learn how they might start up their own organic hop yards. Fuller has talked with two nearby breweries, New Belgium and Odells, about testing out the fruits of his labor and is hoping to vastly expand his plantings next year to as much as 150 acres.
To me, the larger question that remains is whether these very small scale efforts will lead to anything near a truly localized hop supply for the majority of the country’s brewers. Or, should brewers be looking to other native species as alternatives? Perhaps the other genus in the Cannabaceae family holds some hope? But will brewers have the audacity to explore beyond hops?