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How Are Hops Grown and Harvested?

Beer lovers know that hops are the most important element of any good brew, but how are hops grown and harvested? Let's delve into a hop harvest in the Willamette Valley to provide the answer.

The Harvest

Third-generation hop farmer Gayle Goschie can finally rest. The harvest is over. The Crystal Zwickle pale ale from Central Oregon’s Crux Brewing tastes of freshly zested oranges and fresh-cut wood, which is to say it tastes amazing and vibrant. That’s because the Crystal hops used in its making were still growing at Goschie Farms in Silverton, Oregon the very morning the beer was brewed.

It was a pretty good year for hops. But that’s not always the case.

“Hop farming is hop farming, and how my grandparents farmed to produce the annual harvest and how I manage my crops are very similar: boots on the ground, working with Mother Nature. I thought for a time that I could manipulate or manage the big Mother, but no, she rules. One late spring day after I had returned from college for the summer work season we had a freak hailstorm flatten a 20-acre field of hops. As we stood at the edge of the field discussing our options to save the crop, the conclusion was reached that nothing much could be done. I was instructed to simply wait for the plants to regrow new shoots and then retrain those shoots up the network of strings.”

(Photo Courtesy Crosby Hop Farm)

For almost as long as there have been European settlers on American soil, there has been European-style beer. And on the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s push for brewing beer with wild hops instead of other herbs and flora (which is a story for another day), it’s important to know just how hops get into our beer today since it’s an industry unto itself. In fact, according to the Hops Growers of America, the first commercial hop farm was planted in 1648 (yes, near Plymouth Rock). Today, some 45,000 acres of farmland are devoted to humulus lupulus, the fragrant flowers that add much of the flavor, aroma, and bitterness to beer. Most U.S. hops hail from the Pacific Northwest (because summer days are longer and the fertile soil gets tons of rain). Washington, predominantly in the Yakima Valley, accounts for 70 percent of our hops while Oregon, predominantly in the Willamette Valley, grows another 15 percent. All the small hop farms from Michigan to New Mexico are nice for their respective local breweries, but even combined they do not equal Willamette’s 7,000 or so acres.

Goschie Farms accounts for 550 of those. Crosby Hop Farms down the road in Woodburn adds another 350 acres. Between Gayle Goschie and Blake Crosby, these two modern hop growers and their ancestors combine for 250 years experience keeping brewers, and beer lovers, in hops. Each acre will, on average, yield 900 plants that in turn will generate some 2,000 pounds of dried hop cones. And from the last second they have to grow in the field come September, within 32 hours each cone will be brewery-ready.

Finding Hops A Home

Hops can be sold directly to a brewery, or through a distributor, both of which will contract with the hop grower in advance. Bruce Wolf, owner of St. Paul, Oregon-based hop distributor Willamette Valley Hops, comes from five generations of hop growers.

Having spent his entire life around hops, he knows what to look for when sourcing product.

"It's important to know where your product is coming from," Wolf says. "There's no "book" on hop growing, and almost every farmer is going to treat their hops differently based on what knowledge was passed down to them."

"A lot of the process is visual – I get to watch these hops grow every summer, because the farmers that our supplier buys from are all around me. You're able to compare by look, the way the fields are maintained, the money spent in doing so, and it all reflects on the final product – the hop cone. It's still real old school – when we look at hops we're still walking in the fields, ripping hop cones down, smelling them, looking for seeds. It's very hands-on."

Unlike most distributors, Willamette Valley Hops focuses exclusively on small brewers, 25,000 bbls or less, essentially making the business a craft supplier. As such, personal relationships come to the fore, both with hop farmers and brewers, including many of the country's top Hazy IPA brewers. 

With the hazy IPA style as an example, Wolf notes the ability of the consumer and their leverage of social media to dictate what a hop supplier might stock. As a result, hop growers and suppliers "have to keep their finger on the pulse" of what's hot. Hop suppliers must understand not only how hops are grown, but how they will affect a beer.

"As a supplier, brewers will call us asking what hops to use, which has really helped expand our knowledge of brewing. If a brewer wants a New England-style IPA, we have a few hops that can actually add haze to the beer."

In this way, hop growers and distributors play a vital role in the brewer's creative process.

"When a brewery wins a medal for a beer we supplied the hops for, that's gratifying. So there's a kind of unspoken appreciation we have for the brewer. Not everyone in the sales business gets to turn around and try something made with their product that they enjoy."

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