By Dustin Gouker
For the Oregon Beer Growler
The harvest this year at Mecca Grade Estate Malt was more about the future than the present.
After harvesting a full 300 acres of Full Pint barley and overproducing in 2016 to fill up its storage, the farm and malthouse outside of Madras grew by just 40 acres this year.
But in that same field were 30 different selections for The Next Pint Project, a partnership with Oregon State University for breeding a new variety of barley that will eventually be used by Mecca Grade. (The Full Pint variety was also bred by OSU.)
It was the second of a three-year program. Last year, there were 130 crosses planted at the farm, whittled down to 30 this season based on a variety of factors, eliminating strains that didn’t work out.
After this year’s harvest, the field is down to eight, with the goal of selecting one variety that the farm will produce moving forward, according to co-founder Seth Klann.
“The selection criteria will be based on finished beer for that variety,” said Klann. “We’re looking for something bred exclusively for our conditions in Central Oregon, our irrigation, and hopefully we find some sort of unique flavor, because that’s what it’s all about.”
Barley is often an afterthought for breweries, but Mecca Grade — which raises its own barley and also malts it on the premises — is trying to change that. Most malt for brewing in North America comes from a few large producers. But by farming its own unique barley and malting it, the business is creating a niche for itself in the craft brew industry.
“Because we’re an estate malt house, people ask us ‘Well does all your stuff come from your own farm?’ And I answer ‘Yes,’” said Klann, who runs the farm with his father. “And I think it surprises a lot of people, because even other craft malt houses are having to source from all over the place.
“So everything comes off of our own family farm. And I know that it limits production, but on the other hand the only people that are invested in it are me and my dad,” Klann continued. “We’re not set up to have explosive growth and become this huge thing, and I know the brewers we work with don’t want that either. So as long as we can keep things slow and steady and putting out really rare reserved malt, that’s what we are going to do.”
The list of brewers and beers using Mecca Grade’s malts is constantly growing. (You can see a full lineup on the website.) The Ale Apothecary in Bend now makes all its beer with Mecca Grade malt. Yachats Brewing on the coast uses it for about 95 percent of its beer, according to Klann.
This fall, you’ll see beers using this year’s harvest at Hood River’s pFriem Family Brewers and Logsdon Farmhouse Ales, Klann said. Deschutes Brewery, which has produced several beers using Mecca Grade’s product, has another beer in the making that will feature the farm’s crop.
“We’re going through the process of getting all of our barley certified Salmon-Safe, and that’s been big for Deschutes, and it’s been big for Crux [Fermentation Project],” Klann said.
But Oregon craft breweries are not the only destination for Mecca Grade’s malt. About half of it goes to California; its pilsner-style malts are being used in hazy IPAs.
“Our malt is definitely not cheap, and I think in Oregon the price is going up, but it kind of prohibits people from experimenting with better and more local ingredients,” Klann said. “But down there the price has already gone up, so people are just kind of chasing after the next secret ingredient for making better beer.”
Beer makers as far away as Allagash Brewing Company in Maine have also used Mecca Grade.
If you’re looking for Mecca Grade malt for your homebrew, you can find it at retailers in Portland (F.H. Steinbart Co.), Bend (The Brew Shop) and Corvallis (Corvallis Brewing Supply).
By Dustin Gouker
For the Oregon Beer Growler
Smith Rock Hop Farm co-founder Miles Wilhelm was drinking a pint of beer on a recent August evening while surveying the acres of hop bines that he and volunteers would harvest the next morning.
“Beer absolutely tastes better when you grow your own hops,” Wilhelm said with a smile.
Wilhelm didn’t have to wait long to savor that improved flavor. Smith Rock Hop Farm, near the small Central Oregon town of Terrebonne, is now in its second year of growing hops and features two types: Centennial and Cascade. The entire crop of Centennial was earmarked for Redmond’s Wild Ride Brewing that went into a boil the same day it was harvested to make a fresh-hop beer.
While other areas in the Pacific Northwest are famous for growing hops — notably Oregon’s Willamette Valley and the Yakima Valley in Washington -- the conditions are actually fairly ideal in Central Oregon as well, according to Wilhelm. Evidence comes in the form of a growing number of hop farms that have sprung up around the region. Smith Rock is just one of them. The most well-known is probably Bend’s Worthy Brewing Company, which actually has a greenhouse and hop yard on its campus. There is also a smattering of hop farms throughout the region, including Cascade Hop Farm in Redmond, Tumalo Hops in Tumalo and several others based in the Lone Pine Valley, Madras and Powell Butte. Those farms work together on selling hops and improving growing techniques as the Central Oregon Hop Growers organization.
The real advantage of having a readily available supply of hops — even in small quantities — for the numerous Central Oregon breweries comes at harvest time and during fresh-hop beer season. Instead of waiting for a shipment of hops from a larger grower hours away, the hops from area farms can get to the brewers much more quickly.
“There were 26 different fresh hop beers last year that were just made by Central Oregon brewers,” Wilhelm said. “And we would love to supply that. That way they get a fresh hop beer, which is en vogue, and we don’t have to dry, pack it, store it, et cetera.”
For those interested in growing and harvesting their own hops on a much smaller scale, it doesn’t sound like rocket science, at least to listen to the way Wilhelm described it. Before starting Smith Rock, he just grew hops in his backyard.
“You just stick them in ground, give them as much sun as possible and make sure they get enough to water,” Wilhelm said. “You don’t have to baby them.”
Clearly, successfully growing hops -- especially on a larger scale -- is a little more nuanced than that. But Wilhelm explained that anyone from about Ashland to the Canadian border could find success in trying to grow hops in just about any type of soil.
A setup for growing hops can be as simple as running a piece of string from the ground to your roof, although hops can also grow on a trellis. On a larger scale and with more materials, that is the basic arrangement at most hop farms, allowing hops to grow upward. Adding a little bit of fertilizer and nitrogen is good, Wilhelm says, as is watering them regularly, though not to the point out of “drowning them.”
Harvesting is easy -- you just pluck them off the bine. Although getting to the hops can be difficult if the bines reach their full height at maturity, in excess of 20 feet.
When you’re done, you have fresh hops, which could make your homebrew or the fresh-hop beer at a local brewery taste that much better.
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