One of the founding partners of Plough Monday, Norm Vidoni, puts in the hard work to make sure his hops are grown organically, which means more labor — like weeding by hand. The Veneta-based brewery isn’t focused on making every batch the same, resulting in a unique experience for the consumer. Photo by Gail Oberst
By Anthony St. Clair
For the Oregon Beer Growler
The vision began with locally sourced, organic ingredients for a true Willamette Valley beer. The reality has proven far more challenging. Veneta-based Plough Monday is adapting and plowing ahead with plans to bring as-local-as-possible beers to Oregon and Washington — despite making hard decisions to veer from their original plans.
Founding partners Norm Vidoni and Charlie Whedbee have been friends and homebrew partners for more than 20 years. From working a farm and trying to meet the challenge of raising organic hops, to learning not only how to brew, but how to build a market for their beers, the two friends keep adapting and learning. Through it all, the crew at Plough Monday has been producing 7 to 10 barrels a week, working toward a local tasting room and refining recipes for bottling and wider distribution of beers such as Fresh Hop Fuggle, American Brown Ale and Northwest Strong Ale. And, more recently, the brewery was certified organic by Oregon Tilth, a nonprofit that’s been advocating for organic agriculture since 1974. In this conversation, Norm Vidoni discusses farming, hops, the importance of local, the decline of organic beers, Plough Monday’s vision and how they are finding their way in a challenging agricultural environment and a crowded market.
What drives your passion for Willamette Valley-grown hops?
NV: Willamette Valley hops have a unique quality. They have less harshness to the bitterness, even at higher alpha acids. I think the aromas don’t have the same strong citrus qualities, but more of the lighter, floral aroma qualities. The climate here is much more similar to the climates in England and Germany, where they have those Noble varieties.
What are the challenges of growing hops organically?
NV: You have to be careful with organic inputs. Too much copper in the soil can make it so you can’t grow things. Weeding has to be done by hand, since you can’t use herbicides. Input is higher, but your output per acre is lower than it would be if using conventional fertilizers. These problems are causing people to start dropping out of organic hop production, and we likely will see drops in organic beer production.
How do mildew problems affect what you can grow?
NV: There’s one hop that’s totally downy mildew resistant, and that’s Magnum. That’s a great hop, and I’ve got lots of Magnums, but I think it’s only good as a bittering hop.
Fuggle, Golding, Perle and Orion all have some resistance, so they grow well here without getting decimated by downy mildew. No other hops can be grown organically here.
The hops industry hasn’t been focused on developing hops with these disease resistances. The Willamette Valley could be much more competitive in hop production if that had happened, but the focus has been growing hops that grow better in Yakima.
How are you adapting your own beer production?
NV: We’re recalibrating, long-term, for having sourcing as local as possible be more of a long-term goal than an immediate goal. It’s a quality decision. I really wish that there was more desire within the industry and the market for Willamette Valley-grown hops at this point.
What beers and styles will you be putting out?
NV: We’re moving more towards traditionally Northwest-style ales, but we are going to continue making the malt-forward, English-style beers, but with Northwest ingredients.
When we came into this, we had big hopes we could have a dogmatic, 100 percent local product. I see us moving more toward sourcing locally even if it’s out of our way, but if we can’t source it locally, we focus on where we get the quality or organic we seek. That’s disappointing to change from our original plan, but it helps us put out a product that the market wants.
How do you want people to view Plough Monday?
NV: We want to always be an artisanal brewery.
When we bottle, the bottles will have batch numbers. We aren’t focused on every batch being the same or every bottle being the same. We are always going to tweak our recipes and processes in between batches. We want there to be a variety, because we are always changing, learning, trying new things. That makes for an interesting product, and it allows you as a consumer to have some surprise in what you’re going to have. As time goes on, we hope to have three to five flagship, regular beers, then everything else work their way around those regular beers.
I’ve farmed organically for years, and I believe in it. I believe in trying to source locally. It’s great for the economy. It’s an important thing for the community at large to have these services, this agricultural production, within the community itself. But at the end of the day, people like to eat bananas, and those can’t be grown locally. We’re learning that we have to allow ourselves more flexibility than we’ve allowed ourselves to this point.
[a] 25327 Jeans Road, Veneta
Barley may be the most overlooked ingredient in beer, but it plays a critical background role that Oregon State University professor Pat Hayes likens to the bass solo in a song. Additionally, researchers are working on creating new varieties of barley and farm trials are underway. Pictured here is a combine harvesting Rogue’s barley fields last summer. Photo courtesy of Rogue Ales and Spirits
By Kris McDowell
For the Oregon Beer Growler
Of the four ingredients in beer, barley is perhaps the most underrated. It doesn't have the flashiness of hops, with new varieties seemingly coming out every day. It doesn't have the environmental gravitas of water, the most abundant ingredient in beer by volume. It doesn't have the lingering mystique of yeast that harkens back to the time before yeast was a recognized beer ingredient. That leaves barley, the most predominantly used grain for malt, as the often-overlooked ingredient. But just like "no one puts Baby in the corner," barley is deserving of its own time in the spotlight.
While barley tends to get taken for granted, Oregon State University barley breeding and products professor Pat Hayes puts it in perspective saying that, "Without malt there wouldn't be the opportunity to showcase hops and yeast. It plays a critical background role but rarely gets to move to the front." He likens being able to pick the flavor of barley out in a beer to picking out the bass solo out in a song. The comparison is apt because base malts, which are lightly kilned and have low color, don’t provide much flavor. That isn't to say there is no contribution to beer's flavor from malt; in fact, there are a wide variety of specialty malts that do contribute more distinct characteristics. Craft brewers by far use more specialty malts than mainstream, adjunct brewers and have been the primary drivers in the growth and evolution of the specialty malt market.
Before malt is created, barley must be grown, most of which is called spring barley that is planted in the spring and harvested in the fall. As an agricultural crop, barley provides some potential challenges for farmers. The revenue per acre for can be lower than what could be made growing other crops, setting up a situation in which it may be replaced with more lucrative crops. In addition, there is a secondary market for barley that doesn’t meet the specifications of malting companies. But that market — animal feed — is priced in favor of other crops, corn in particular, whose price is lamentably low due to national policies. Sadly, it may be cheaper for an Oregon farmer to buy Midwest-grown corn for feed than it is to purchase a neighboring farmer's barley.
Finally, barley grown for malting requires it to be a still-living thing, 99 percent viable, when it arrives to be processed into malt. That viability is influenced by handling during harvest and transport (an extra logistical consideration) as well as the moisture content at the time of harvest. Fall rains can be detrimental to the quality of the barley, a risk that’s minimized when malting companies contract with farmers in diverse geographical areas and supplement their spring barley crop with winter barley, which is typically harvested about a month earlier. Great Western Malting, a historical West Coast supplier to craft brewers, buys barley from northern California up through Washington and east to Idaho and Montana.
The variety of barley each farmer grows is based on the suitability of the climate it's grown in and provides only minor differences that are negated by malting. The process of turning barley into malt can be compared to turning bread into toast, one in which it is the process that is more influential on the finished product than what the starting product was. Great Western Malting produces 30 different types of malts to provide craft brewers with the variety and selection that they seek.
With that said, the starting product — the barley itself — is an area that continues to evolve as well. Researchers like Pat Hayes at Oregon State University are exploring the creation of new varieties of barley, which beyond having the ability of being malted into different types, may actually contribute their own unique flavors to beer. One such exploration is the crossing of Golden Promise, a barley strain that produces a malt craft brewers favor, with Full Pint, a variety that some hope will yield unique flavors. The hybrid creation, called Oregon Promise, is currently being grown in Madras. Oregon State University is in the process of conducting farm trials, moving beyond small plot production and working with industry partners who are starting to make the tiniest batches of beers with the grain.
Digressing slightly, standard batches of barley to be malted range from 30,000-350,000 pounds where as 5-by-20 test plots can be expected to yield only around 11 pounds. There’s no simple way to malt that small of an amount, currently. But that’s not stopping some from figuring out a way to do so, providing researchers with a way to determine whether they’ve gotten the results they were hoping for in the preliminary stages. One such venture is related to Pat Hayes' work in which Wisconsin's New Glarus Brewing Company has been able to develop a process utilizing less than a half a pound of malt to make a batch of beer that is equivalent to a single bottle. There’s a big gap between that highly specialized process and the smallest batch size of 30,000 pounds from Great Western Malting.
Just as craft brewers respond to the demand of consumers, so too is there at least one malting company working to fill the gap in malt batch sizes. A student from Pat Hayes' program is heading to Rahr Malting Company in Minnesota to work on a small scale malting/brewing/analyzing pipeline. The outcome of that work should expedite the exploration of barley’s contribution to beer flavor, starting with the Oregon Promise variety.
Developments like creating new barley strains, malting previously unheard of small batches and making a single-bottle batch of beer are exciting. And it’s things like this that may result in barley becoming the next frontier in craft beer.
For more information, visit the Oregon State University Barley Project site.
Capitol Farms may be a modest-sized hop farm compared to other local growers, but the multigenerational family operation has deep roots and devoted workers. Some of the hop harvesters pictured here, Jorge Hernandez (foreground), Sergio Bravo (left) and Fidel Sosa, put in long hours when the cones are ready to come off the bines. Photo by Emma Browne
By Erica Tiffany-Brown
Of the Oregon Beer Growler
When you ask hop grower Mike Kerr about his favorite variety of hop, he’ll tell you it’s the Nugget.
“It’s just an absolutely outstanding hop to grow. It’s vigorous; it’s adaptive, if you will. It can adapt to hot growing seasons, cold growing seasons. It’s just a wonderful hop.”
Just like how the Nugget hop can adapt to whatever Mother Nature throws its way, Mike and his brother Andy have also had to learn how to become resilient.
At 160 acres, their Salem-area hop farm is quite humble compared to most local growers, but that hasn’t stopped Capitol Farms from having a full-scale amount of setbacks.
It was late summer 2013 when an aggressive thunderstorm made its invasion onto the farm, threatening the hard work the brothers and their crew had put so much time and effort into.
“We could watch it coming in on the radar and it was just horrible to watch. And it came and it knocked down 95 acres of Nugget hops. They were within just days of being harvested,” Mike said.
“At that point, you’re really faced with some challenges. You have your harvest window based on a 24-hour picking cycle and you immediately lose 12 hours because you can’t harvest at night because you have to bring in this complex machinery to help raise the trellis so that you can pick the hops. Then, you’re also faced with about a seven-day window before the hops start turning bad that are lying on the ground. So at that point, we didn’t think we’d be able to get through 50 percent of what was left. In fact, we knew we wouldn’t be able to.
“So, you’re out there walking through these fields that are just devastated … crop poles are looking like matchsticks … I mean it’s the worst thing you’ve ever seen in your life. And you’re looking at it going, ‘There’s just no way in hell.’”
And that’s when the Davidsons showed up.
A multigenerational family of hop growers about 20 miles north of Capitol Farms, the Davidsons had just finished harvesting their hops the day before and had sent their team home, but when they heard what had happened to the Kerrs, they called within hours to say, “Don’t worry about it. We’ll be there.”
All of a sudden, truckloads of equipment started coming in.
“Not only did they spend a week harvesting our hops side by side with us, but it wasn’t just a matter of sending their crew out to pick hops … I mean those guys were out in the field treating it like it was their own.”
Where does that desire to lend a hand come from? According to Mike, it comes from a family with a great sense of responsibility.
Jim Davidson, who passed away many years ago, held a monthly breakfast as a means to get other hop growers together and just chat, which helped foster a sense of camaraderie in the business that still lives on.
“The Davidson family was just remarkable; they literally saved our crop,” Mike said. “And I think you would find that anywhere in the industry today. People will really pitch in and help each other.”
Whether by blood relation or not, hop growing definitely seems to be rooted in a family environment.
Capitol Farms was started by Mike and Andy’s grandfather in 1951. He had grown hops in the St. Paul area and was the local buyer for S. S. Steiner, which is still a very prominent hop dealer today — located just down the road from the farm. His son, Mike and Andy’s father, came back after a stint in the Air Force and he farmed for a while before opening a computer store in 1980. Shortly thereafter, Mike ended up leaving Oregon State University to come back and help out with the farm, which ultimately led to the brothers purchasing the farm from their parents.
Mike and Andy made the decision a long time ago to diversify the farm, so they added a perennial nursery. “It’s a nice balance, it creates more work for our labor force year-round, which we feel is important,” but, Mike emphasizes, “Hops are our history, they’re our blood. Can’t imagine doing anything else.”
The brothers grow four varieties of hops on their farm: Nugget, Willamette, Centennial and Cascade. When asked about his favorite part of the growing process, Mike said it’s the springtime. “It’s the season of renewal. You start turning the earth and it just smells wonderful. It’s almost miraculous to watch the growth rate in the spring. Everything’s fresh, everything’s new.”
Mike, of course, enjoys the other times of the year, like the harvest season, but says, “It’s so go-go-go that you really rarely get a moment to pause to appreciate and enjoy it. You have to remind yourself to stop and enjoy those moments during that time because it’s pretty easy to get caught up in the rush.”
Although the Kerrs have weathered their share of storms, it sounds like they’ve found their balance. And just like those resilient Nugget hops, they’ll continue to adapt and grow with some helping hands and a good foundation.
By Andi Prewitt
Of the Oregon Beer Growler
To most folks, farming doesn’t sound like the kind of job that would be a thrill a minute. But if you ask the workers at Rogue about their experience, the words “exciting” and “fun” come spilling out of their mouths.
Perhaps the average person isn’t intrigued by farming because it’s become so far removed from our daily existence, beginning with the Green Revolution that brought on the use of chemicals and advanced technology in the 1940s, allowing for expanded production. Another factor may be simply that agriculture isn’t sexy. Combines and tractors and pulling things out of the dirt doesn’t really conjure up alluring images. And, quite frankly, farming sounds kind of dull. You are watching grass grow, in a way, as fans of passive pastimes would put it. But if farming were a spectator sport, the magnificent hop puts on one heck of a performance, climbing some 18 feet up a trellis in a matter of two months.
Hops are just one type of crop that the workers at Rogue Farms in Independence have to tend to during the harvest, which began in August and will run through September. The busy plot of land in the mid-Willamette Valley also produces grasses, multiple vegetables and honey from the resident bees. Each comes with its own unique challenges and this year, in particular, Mother Nature has thrown a couple of curve balls.
The best and most popular time to drop by Rogue Farms is during the harvest. There’s actually traffic — truck after truck comes rattling down the road, kicking up dust while hauling bulging loads of hop bines to the still-sturdy 1950s-era buildings for processing on site. The air is thick with the scent of the sticky lupulin powder from the cones. Down the way, another farm is sometimes simultaneously harvesting mint, creating a collision of unique, fresh smells. From sunup to sundown, the moving parts never stop. Even when the lights go out on the farm at night, one person keeps the kiln burning to dry the hops during the graveyard shift as crops adhere to their own schedule, not necessarily one that’s convenient for workers.
The bustling spectacle that is the harvest season is, of course, the highlight of the year for those who turn the soil. But getting to that point takes months of effort. Even when things have gone dormant on the farm, important activity is still underway. For example, the annual winter flooding on the property might sound potentially devastating, but it’s actually a gift disguised by nature. The nutrients and silt found in the water of the nearby Willamette River saturate the hop yards and replenish the soil. Rogue, who started growing the crop in 2008 to ensure they’d have an adequate supply in case of shortages and skyrocketing prices, started planning for the deluge by planting a cover crop of barley. The grass gets to be about 2 feet tall at its peak, but will never be harvested. Its sole purpose is to protect the hop rhizomes from washing away when the waters rise and act like a warm blanket during frigid nights.
While too much water doesn’t pose a threat, not enough water and this year’s exceedingly high temperatures can be risky. Luckily, hops love the sun. If the farm’s bines were a kid doing the rope climb in gym class, they’d have set a record. According to Rogue, that crop made its ascent faster than they’ve seen before. The cones developed right on schedule, but “ripened” a bit more quickly than usual.
The sun-soaked days moved up the harvest for many of the company’s crops, including corn, cucumbers, jalapenos, rye and wheat. Sweet pumpkins, which would normally rest on their land until September, were ready to go in early August. That meant that everyone from the Rogue office piled onto a bus, headed out to Independence armed with machetes and got to work on the squash, creating a sort of spontaneous team-building exercise without the eye-rolling-ly bad get-to-know-you games.
The ahead-of-schedule picking and plucking has kept the workers on their toes. But in Tygh Valley, about 30 miles south of The Dalles, the company has been facing fire warnings due to the dry conditions. One spark from a piece of equipment could ignite the field and tear through the crop. Rogue has continued with the harvest, but cautiously: they’ve slowed the speed of the combines, attached apparatus to tractors to create a firebreak if needed and kept a makeshift fire truck — a water tank — nearby.
Weather is just one risk in agriculture, and Rogue has learned that the hard way — as all farmers do. This year it was the attack of the killer slugs. Despite their reputation for moving slowly, these creatures made quick work of the farm’s rye seed. Twenty-four hours after planting 20 acres worth, the slugs had decimated half of the lot. That is the stuff of farmers’ nightmares.
Rogue also enjoys adding crops to their lineup. For instance, the farm’s jalapenos experiment started out in a planter box. They thrived and now occupy two acres in Independence. Last year, Rogue branched out by planting corn for the first time. They later discovered the seeds went into the ground a bit later than they should have. And come harvest time, Rogue couldn’t get anybody to combine the 5-acre patch because it was too small for the effort it would take. Workers ended up handpicking all of the ears instead. If that weren’t enough, another setback occurred after the corn was driven to Tygh Valley for floor malting. The shucker there broke on the first ear, so it was back to the manual version — removing the husks one by one. That experience served as a valuable lesson in organization, so this time around Rogue has someone who will combine and remove the kernels at the same time.
No two days are the same on a farm. The rain, the heat, the snow and the wind all make certain of that. And at Rogue Farms, there’s always the possibility that the brewmaster wants to take a chance on a new crop — continuing the adventures in agriculture. What Rogue or probably any farmer, for that matter, would want you to take away from a visit to the property is to truly understand and appreciate where the product — in this case beer — comes from. When people think about brewing, big, shiny fermenters and mash tuns likely come to mind. But there’s an entire agricultural endeavor that comes first. A day on the farm is an excellent way to bring brewing from the steel tanks right on back to the dirt.
By Andi Prewitt
Of the Oregon Beer Growler
Some of the tiniest workers behind one of nature’s sweeteners that ends up in your beer are getting some much-deserved love this month. The Rogue Farms bees that normally spend their days making honey in Independence are now hundreds of miles away in sunny California. It’s easy to forget about the busy pollinators once the temperatures cool, the blossoms fade, and the final leaves tumble from their branches. Therefore, it might come as a surprise to learn that Rogue actually takes the extra effort to transport more than seven million bees south every year to provide them with a winter respite.
During the warmer months, the bees help pollinate a variety of crops at Rogue Farms as well as produce honey that goes into the business’s kölsch, braggot, mead and soda. One keeper oversees all of the hives. After the bustling hop harvest in late summer and early fall, activity on the farm and among the bees begins to slow down. As wild sources of nectar and pollen go dormant, the colonies adapt by reducing their population. When older bees die, they are no longer replaced. Mating seasons has ended, which means the queen stops laying eggs. Male bees, or drones, are excluded from the hive since their sole purpose is to reproduce. Feeding them when they’re not needed could use up precious resources during the winter.
Before the bees make their journey 600 miles south to California, Rogue cooks sugar syrup and distributes pollen patties as a food source. The keeper will check on the hives from time to time to help ensure other wildlife, such as skunks, foxes and deer, aren’t disturbing the bees. However, handling of the colonies is kept to a minimum. The keeper wants to avoid opening hive boxes because exposure to temperatures below 50 degrees can stress the colonies. And while the bees help enhance the beer with their honey, a beer ingredient can actually add to the lives of the bees. If any of the hives need medicating to protect against mites or fungal diseases, Rogue uses a treatment called HopGuard, which is derived from natural food-based compounds in hops.
After a few months of winter preparations, the bees finally set out for their California vacation in January or February. This year, they departed Jan. 15. Crews hand-stack the hives onto a flatbed truck in the evening and secure them with rope. The bees get further protection by being covered with a net during the drive down. Their journey lasts all night until they reach Tracy, Calif., which is located about 30 minutes west of Modesto, Calif. If the driver were to stop along the way, the bees would likely start to get much more active due to the warmer temperatures.
The months spent out-of-state are a bee’s paradise. Their temporary home is a bountiful almond orchard, which the bees will help pollinate while they begin to increase their population once again. The hives are scheduled to return to Independence in early April so that they can take advantage of the apple and cherry blossoms that should be among some of the first to bloom during the season. The journey across state lines and back again may sound like one big endeavor for a bunch of bees, but their contribution to the flavor of beer and the health of the environment in general is truly greater than their physical size.
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