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Hop harvest heating up
As August comes to an end, area hop farms have launched into action to harvest the first wave of this year's ripening crops.
While this year's harvest is expected to be fairly average after a wild growing season, hop farmers in the area say the growing craft brewery movement has sent demand skyrocketing in the last decade – not for just any hops but a variety, as brewers and beer drinkers hunt for unique brews in an progressively crowded market.
"Craft breweries have absolutely changed the whole landscape of the hop industry seemingly overnight, over the last five to ten years, but I'd say especially in the last five years," said Blake Crosby, the fifth generation to run the Woodburn-area Crosby Hop Farm.
"It's absolutely driven hop demand and even new varietals development, in terms of trying to develop something new and different for consumers who are increasingly seeking now kind of the next great beer, the next IPA," he added.
Crosby was among the area farm owners reporting last week that the grueling, month-long harvest and processing of area hops began in earnest in the past couple weeks, starting off with Centennial hops.
Dave Smith – who co-owns B&D Farms with brother Ben Smith as the family's fourth generation of hop farmers – showed off how the hop cones are harvested and processed: The vines are cut down in 30- to 50-foot strands, taken to a small plant to strip the fruit away from the rest of the plant and then laid out by the millions to dry under steady 140-degree heat.
"I think the quality is going to be good on the hops," he noted while driving between two farms in an area west of St. Paul. "There's no mildew, there's no pest like aphids or spiders. Everything's pretty clean. But it's still early in the season; that can (still) happen."
While some of the Centennial crop has been sold – including to Hood River-based Full Sail Brewing Company for their "8 Pound Pale" – Smith noted that Centennial is just one of the 12 varieties the farm grows on 840 acres.
Similarly, Crosby said his farm grows 10 varieties of hops on about 350 acres.
The variety of hops on a given farm is also thanks to the growth of the craft brewing movement, the pair agreed.
About 20 years ago, the handful of massive breweries that distributed throughout the country largely used hops as a bittering agent without a major impact on the flavor or smell of the beer.
That has changed, farmers said, as craft brewers and consumers look for increasingly complex and unique flavors and scents from their beers that come from using whole hops in the process, especially aroma hops like Centennial, Cascade and Mount Hood cultivars, Smith said.
Willamette Valley farms are particularly well-suited to join in on the trend, as the region has the perfect climate, light and season for growing hops, Smith said – not to mention Oregon State University's hop breeding program, which boasts it has developed 95 percent of the cultivars used by American craft breweries.
The rise of American craft breweries and their use of whole hops means each barrel uses 10- to 15-times the hops per barrel from about 20 years ago, Crosby said, noting the national average is about 1.5 pounds per barrel.
"That change has been really good for business and it's presented some challenges, too – good challenges – but the industry has really had to step up very quickly to keep pace with demand and also be able to develop new and interesting flavors to keep consumers coming back for more."
Ben Smith said the evolution of the market in the last decade has obviously been a boon to farmers in the form of higher sales, but the change has also had a positive impact in spurring better beer and more discerning consumers.
"I think it's educated the drinker, the beer drinker, on what good beer tastes like," he said.
Asked about beer before this, he mentioned one of the biggest light beer brands in the country and replied, "Is it beer?"
"We had about four choices 25 years ago and now you've got 400 choices," Smith said.