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.
By Chris Jennings
For the Oregon Beer Growler
As homebrewers, we enjoy all things related to homebrewing. This includes, but is not limited to, drinking, enjoying the company of good friends and, of course, growing hops. There is nothing more satisfying than brewing a single-hop IPA using hops from our own gardens. You can use them wet, if wanted, but there are also cheap and easy methods for drying our bounty for the homebrewing adventures that lie ahead.
Before we can brew with our homegrown hops, we must first get them off the bine. The process is very easy, but very time consuming. Now is the time to summon the help of those good friends, who will likely be game as long as you promise them the role of taste tester once your brew is ready.
In order to tell whether the hops are ready to harvest, take some time to feel the cones. They should have a texture that’s almost like tissue paper — not the stuff you blow your nose with, but the tissue paper you wrap birthday presents with. You don’t want to let the cones sit for too long because they will begin to lose all of their character, so the faster you can harvest the better. Once the hops are ready, you begin the harvest by cutting down the bine. Next, grab a beer or two to help the time pass as your pick each cone, one at a time. This is that part where the friends come in handy.
Once you’ve harvested all of the hop cones, they can be immediately thrown into a batch or dried. If you’re making a fresh-hop beer, it’s best to use them as late additions or for dry hopping. These methods will allow you to retain all of the lovely flavors and aromas.
However, drying is another option. If you’re looking for a low-budget method and have a smaller harvest, all you need is a paper bag and some sunlight. Add hops to the bag until it’s about half-full. Roll it up, leaving a bit of empty space at the top and then place it in the sun.
Approximately every half hour or so, shake the bag allowing the hops to breathe. Continue the process for several hours. To determine when the hops are done drying, place them on a scale before you start. Once they’ve lost about 70 percent of their weight, they should be good to go.
If you have a much larger harvest or prefer a more legitimate alternative, you can build a drying rack. It’s not very spendy or complicated as long as you can make a trip to the hardware store and a secondhand shop.
To make a drying rack, obtain two-by-fours, some screen door material, a thin piece of plywood and staples. Of course, that you’ll be able to find at the hardware store. All you need from a secondhand shop is a hair dryer that has an optional “cool” setting.
Use the two-by-fours to make frames that are a few inches smaller than the size of the screen material. Stretch the screen over the frames and use staples to secure them in place. Remember, you’re going to be putting what will likely be a couple of pounds of hops on the racks, so be liberal with the staples. It’s important to ensure that the frames are the same size so that you can stack them. When you feel like you’ve built enough frames, construct a lid using the plywood. The lid should fit over a frame with no air gaps. Cut a hole in the lid that’s big enough for the hair dryer. Use a zip tie to hold down the dryer’s button so that you can plug it in and begin drying the hops. Since the hops on the bottom rack won’t get as much air, it’s best to cycle the frames through different layers for even drying. Again, weighing the hops beforehand will help you determine when they’re finished. For storage, place the dried cones in a vacuum-sealed bag and freeze them until you’re ready to brew.
Fire Crochet [AG]
Fire Crochet [Extract]
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