By Anthony St. Clair
For the Oregon Beer Growler
Growing, harvesting and processing hops can be a finicky pain in the cask. That’s why scientists, farmers, processors and startups are looking at how technology might increase production and quality. From flyover drones to LED grow lights in hydroponic greenhouses, the market is filled with more experimentation and innovation than ever — but not all new tech is created equal.
The challenges are many, says Jim Solberg, CEO of Indie Hops, a Portland-based hop merchant dedicated to working with craft brewers. Here’s a breakdown of some of the tech being examined:
Unproven and Unlikely
Hops and cannabis are botanical cousins. Cannabis has a history of being grown in climate-controlled greenhouses with LED lights and hydroponics — nutrient-rich solutions — instead of soil. Could hops be grown the same way?
“People don’t necessarily think about the differences between the perennial nature of hops and the annual nature of cannabis,” says Solberg.
Hops have one growth and harvest cycle per year. “After the growing period, the rhizomes need a dormancy period,” explains Solberg. “There is a sort of cleaning up the rhizome does. It’s like us with how sleep helps us function. Hops need overwintering to help them do that. To take that same plant and force it through compressed growth and dormancy cycles at a commercial scale, there are just too many problems and costs to make it viable.”
Cannabis plants are often grown to only a few feet tall, but hops can easily surpass 20 feet. As a result, hops require exponentially more greenhouse space, nutrients, lighting and temperature control. Those factors add up to sky-high economic costs — plus, pests and disease could be an even greater problem in an enclosed space.
“For commercial hop growers, it makes no sense,” says Solberg, but he’s glad that people are trying things out on a small scale. “They might learn something that affects development in a big way.”
Not all ideas are duds though, and farmers and processors are willing to invest in new technologies.
Since farm labor continues to be a challenge, engineers are improving machines that aid with picking, cleaning, drying. At this point, expensive newer machines are only viable for large operations — but Solberg sees the potential to help farmers realize “big savings during the labor of the picking and cleaning process.”
Farmers are also working on how they monitor and adjust plant nutrition. Environmental conditions change every year, affecting both yield and brewing qualities. “You’re trying to optimize the plant’s health, influence its growth habits,” says Solberg. “Advances give more rapid testing of plant material that give a sense nutritionally of what’s going on in the plant. There have been improvements that help stabilize production from a hop standpoint. It doesn’t make it uniform, there are variations, but it does have a positive influence.”
Visitors to a hop field may also see drones flying overhead. Drone-snapped aerial images help farmers evaluate stresses on plants and make adjustments to irrigation or nutrients.
A persistent challenge is field testing hops to know when they are at the optimal condition for harvesting. “In the wine world, they focus on refractometers — they measure the sugar. It’s quick, but there isn’t anything like that for hops,” says Solberg. While there is still no “quick-and-dirty field instrument” for hops, Solberg is hopeful that one could be developed.
Most exciting to Solberg are advances in hop drying and processing. U.S. commercial processors usually dry hops in a 24–30-inch thick layer, laid on a screen floor. Furnaces below the mesh put out heated air that rises, drying the cones. Monitoring moisture levels and temperature has been difficult. “If you let it get too hot, the hop oils can degrade,” explains Solberg. “And these thick beds of hops, there’s not a way to have them mixed through the process. Hops on the bottom don’t get moved, so the bottom of the bed gets warmer than the top, so you have uneven drying.”
Large-scale, variable-speed fans, sensors and mode cells placed on and in the hop bed and along the floor connect to software and provide crucial data. “They can record the weight of the whole floor of hops, and then factor in the weight change for an accurate view of how much moisture has evaporated,” says Solberg.
Hop breeding programs such as Oregon State University’s are also testing varieties that can thrive in drought conditions and still provide a brewing-quality crop. “Water is a larger and larger issue,” says Solberg. “If new hop varieties have both great brewing characteristics but take less water to grow, that could be compelling.”
At a recent global hops symposium at OSU, experts from around the world presented new findings on some of the hundreds of compounds — most as yet unresearched — that comprise any given hop cone.
“Hops are way more complex and interactive than anybody would have imagined. The contribution hops give to beer isn’t just a linear thing,” says Solberg. “There are a lot of so-called hop aroma precursors that don’t contribute in their natural form. During the brewing process and during fermentation, the yeast can help the hop release an aroma component. It’s not present before brewing, but later it releases a clear flavor or aroma component in the beer. Some hops actually do release their aroma compounds during boil, which we used to think wasn’t the case.”
The symposium has given brewers “tremendous ideas,” says Solberg, just as he, farmers and other processors are hopeful for new ideas and innovations.
“Science, research and tech will have some big impact over the next five to 10 years,” he said. “Over time, new things will come of it.”
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 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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