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.”
By Jon Abernathy
For the Oregon Beer Growler
“Fresh hop season ties perfectly in with prime steelhead season,” explained Toby Nolan one early morning in late August, while driving from Bend to Silverton. Nolan, the senior lead guide of tours at Deschutes Brewery in Bend, was on his way to Goschie Farms to pick up 50 pounds of fresh Centennial hops destined for a special ale that will raise money for the Native Fish Society. “The release of this beer coincides with the steelhead runs.”
Nolan is an avid angler and fly fisherman, often found casting a line over a quiet stretch of river in his free time. He practices catch-and-release and is passionate about river conservation and responsible management. “People are starting to realize we are having a negative impact (on the watershed),” he said. “Water is life.”
A first-time visit to Goschie Farms two years ago introduced him to Salmon-Safe hops, inspiring the idea for the benefit beer. The Salmon-Safe program works to keep watersheds clean enough for native salmon to thrive, and the certification process works “to provide incentives for the adoption of practices that protect water quality and fish habitat.” All of the crops grown at Goschie Farms (which, in addition to hops, includes grapes, corn and barley malt) are managed in accordance with these guidelines.
Though not a brewer himself, Nolan worked with Robin Johnson, the assistant brewmaster of the Bend Pub on the concept behind the beer. “I think I’ve been bugging Robin for two years about making this beer,” he laughed. “Finally this year Robin asked me if I still wanted to do it, ‘cause he was going to brew it anyway!” In addition to the Salmon-Safe hops, they incorporated malt from Mecca Grade Estate Malt located in Madras.
Deschutes has a long history of giving back, from their Community Pints every Tuesday to their Street Pub block parties that raise money for local charities. Environmental sustainability is also a priority for the company; for instance, they restore one billion gallons of Deschutes River water each year through the Deschutes River Conservancy water leasing program.
There’s a nice bit of synergy between the two initiatives with this latest project: a fresh-hop pale ale named “Savin’ Freshies,” which will be available at both the Bend and Portland pubs on Oct. 7. The release party at the Bend Tasting Room will additionally offer a raffle and swag with proceeds benefiting the Native Fish Society, and Deschutes is donating $1 from every pint sold.
Arriving at Goschie Farms the morning of his hop run, Nolan met with owner Gayle Goschie and explained the concept behind his beer. Goschie Farms was the first hop grower in the country to become certified as Salmon-Safe, and their efforts to responsibly manage water use to protect wild salmon habitats meshes well with Nolan’s enthusiasm for fishing and conservation. Upon hearing of his efforts to benefit the Native Fish Society with proceeds from the beer sales, Goschie offered to donate the fresh hops to the project.
Partnering with the Native Fish Society was the natural choice for Nolan. The organization’s mission is to advocate for the recovery and protection of wild, native fish as well as the rivers these fish inhabit. Their River Steward Program spans 42 watersheds in Oregon, including the upper and lower Deschutes River, with volunteers working on initiatives such as suction dredge mining reform, hatchery steelhead management and more.
If Savin’ Freshies is well-received, Nolan imagines the possibility of additional similarly themed beers. “If this project goes well, I’d love to see more of these, maybe for each season,” he mused. “It would be a big project, but it would be great to have a lineup of conservation beers added to our bottled series.”
In the meantime, he’s focused on making the release of Savin’ Freshies a success. “I’m really thankful Deschutes has given me the opportunity to do this, and I’m a guide, not a brewer!” he said. “That support has made this a great, gratifying experience.”
By Chris Jennings
For the Oregon Beer Growler
Sure, you’ve used a wide variety of hops since you began homebrewing. Maybe you’ve even started to grow your own. Perhaps there was a even time you got your hands on a rare variety. But there’s still more to learn since the industry has found new ways to process hops, providing beer makers with even more options. These developments can open up a whole new world of flavor profiles.
Aside from all of the hop varieties that seem to debut every month, there are now new ways to process hops. We’re familiar with hops in the whole-leaf dried form — they basically look like pressed flowers. There are also hop pellets that are primarily used by commercial producers. The pellet is literally the whole dried hop chopped into what’s almost a powder before it’s then pressed into little nuggets that look like rabbit food.
The other fairly common use for hops is in oils. To make that, hops are stuffed into a cylinder that is sealed. Carbon dioxide is added at one end while the other features a relief valve. As pressure builds, the CO2 extracts the hop essence, which comes out as an oil. This liquid has all of the same properties of the hop, but in a condensed form and none of the vegetal matter.
One of the newer products available to homebrewers is called hop hash. In large hop-picking facilities, the cones are stripped off bines and fed into a drying room on conveyors. During the harvest, resin and lupulin build up on those belts, which can be stripped off and it resembles a clay-like material. That is the hop hash. It can also be collected as a byproduct of cleaning the pelletizer. The hash has an intense aroma and flavor, which can be great for bittering. It’s also a unique way to add strange and interesting flavors to the boil.
Because hop hash is basically condensed hop essence, the oil makes it difficult to break down in a dry hopping application. But don’t worry — there is another category of hops now on the market that’s easier to use for additions after the wort has been cooled. Cryo Hops, created by Yakima Chief in Washington, “uses a proprietary cryogenic separation process that preserves all components of each hop fraction,” according to the company website. The result is two products: LupuLN2 and Debittered Leaf. The former retains most of the flavor and aroma of hops without the plant matter. It’s best used at the end of a boil or when dry hopping. Keep in mind the dosage is half that of regular hops or pellets by weight. And since there’s no plant involved, you won’t run the risk of picking up grassy flavors in the final beer. The second product, Debittered Leaf, is the concentrated bract separated from a hop cone’s lupulin glands. It’s best used during the boil for beer styles that don’t require a large hop presence, like a pilsner.
With all of the new hop varieties on the market and exciting ways to impart their flavors, our options as homebrewers are seemingly endless. The future is ever-changing and there’s no telling what type of brewing process you’ll end up using to create your next award-winning beer.
Patrick's Snake Oil [AG]
Patrick's Snake Oil [Extract]
By Andi Prewitt
Of the Oregon Beer Growler
The call for 100 more pickers at a Southern Oregon hop farm appeared on newsprint nestled between other want ads for a piano tuner and a maid along with comic strips. It was Aug. 12, 1943, and the need for extra hands had prompted this Grants Pass grower to look north and place his offer in Roseburg’s News-Review. But help wanted notices for hop yard labor in small-town papers was nothing new for that part of the state. Requests for 50 people here, 300 people there were staples of classifieds going back decades. However, besides the older folks who experienced the itchy work as kids and producers in the Willamette Valley who ended up buying equipment from the last operating farm, Rogue Valley hop cultivation has largely been forgotten.
Yet, it is not gone.
More than 20 years after the final growers’ poles and wires that served as the bones for leafy plants came down, bines were once again winding their way up strings on a plot of land that no one really expected to be very good for hop cultivation.
When Steve Pierce signed papers for a foreclosed home with a few acres of land that would someday become Alpha Beta Hops outside of downtown Ashland, he’d never even laid eyes on the property. And he had a pretty good reason — Pierce was in the Indian Ocean on an aircraft carrier. As a Naval intelligence officer, he’d previously spent four years stationed in Munich, which is in some ways like being sentenced to an endless Oktoberfest. It would be nearly impossible to emerge from a stint in beer-soaked Bavaria without becoming enamored with brewing. Pierce said that’s where he “got the beer bug” and had hoped to spend his last year in Germany before retirement, but the military had other plans. That’s how he found himself on an aircraft carrier a world away from Oregon while authorizing the purchase of a mystery farm where he’d soon start turning the soil.
Pierce’s wife actually found the place on the side of I-5 with yellowing grass looking toward the lush, green valley where others warned there wasn’t any water for agriculture. While the Carney clay ground in those parts might be a bit stubborn, stuff grows. But before they could even get to that point, there was enough demolition and rehabilitation to be done that the property could’ve been the focus of an HGTV home improvement show.
“So [my wife] said, ‘Don’t worry, we can fix it up.’ It was a wreck,” Pierce said laughing. “Oh it was horrible. Shag rug.”
Outdated carpeting aside, the next challenge came years later when Pierce decided to turn an adjacent hay field into a hospitable environment for hops. By then, his two grown sons had boomeranged back to Ashland after fulfilling that near-universal urge among young adults to get the heck out of where they’d been raised only to return after realizing their hometown was not so bad after all. Morgan Pierce and wife Jessica now live on the farm in a converted burgundy-hued barn, while younger brother Spencer Pierce is just a short drive away. The brothers became an integral part of the business after Morgan Pierce discovered his dad had a new crop on the way.
“Came home one day and he was out in the field plowing rows,” Morgan Pierce recalled. “And I was like, ‘What are you doing?’ And he’s like, ‘We’re planting hops! I’ve got 3,000 of them coming in a couple of weeks.’”
“It’s been a huge family project because we built the whole thing,” Steve Pierce said.
That includes every building, base to ceiling, and infrastructure on the hop field — aside from the bolts and wires. Every other aspect, from the solar kiln to the walk-in cooler, was constructed by the Pierces. It took eight months to get the terrain ready starting about 10 years ago. That meant unloading 120 yards of steaming organic compost that left faces and hands streaked in soot-colored grime that had them looking “like a couple of coal miners,” Steve Pierce described. After that, 160 20-foot-tall juniper poles had to be pushed into place. Wire was strung in the spitting snow to create what looks like an oversized clothesline where they’d dangle 4,000 paper strings. The family planted 1,800 rhizomes that first year with the goal of giving Ashland-area beer makers a neighbor they could buy hops from. Steve Pierce also wanted to help revive the crop in Southern Oregon.
“So it was just an idea that hop yards had been around earlier in the 20th century — kind of bringing it back,” he said.
What exactly happened, then, to Rogue Valley’s once-thriving hop farms, most in and around Grants Pass? Answering that question is no easy task since archives are scattered and memories fade. It doesn’t seem plausible that one day acres of aromatic buds suddenly sat bare. After all, Josephine County harvested 2,086,400 pounds of hops in 1946, according to “The Hop Press: A Memorandum of What’s Brewin’” from the Oregon State College (now University) Extension Service. Jackson County, while not as prolific, still saw a haul of 67,130 pounds that same year. Tracking down the trail of documents and people who were there begins to fill in the gaps about the hop farm disappearance. Steve Pierce chalked it up to the business of agriculture.
“Hops have always been a very volatile crop, and the price just shoots up and down. Grants Pass had a huge hop yard and that went out of business,” he explained. “But until the craft brewing thing started, where there were so many breweries around, the price stopped fluctuating as much and you could get a pretty good price for hops. So that made it more viable.”
Grants Pass was actually a standout growing area for the Cluster variety, which was being decimated farther north.
“The Willamette Valley was fighting and eventually losing the battle to save Cluster hops from downy mildew, a disease that was introduced accidentally in the late 1920s,” according to Dr. Al Haunold, a now-retired United States Department of Agriculture hop researcher.
Dr. Haunold first visited the remaining two Grants Pass hop growers in the late 1960s with plant pathologist and groundbreaking hop research Jack Horner. They’d been told that there were five farms in the area at one point, but all that still stood was an approximately 250-acre field owned by Chuck Lathrop and another 150 acres that belonged to Mel King.
“They both grew late Clusters, a vigorous hop with good yields and alpha acids content ranging from six to about eight percent,” Dr. Haunold said, having come back to Southern Oregon at least once a year during that time. “When Talisman, a Cluster-derived hop ... was introduced to Grants Pass, it produced even better yields than late Clusters. And some Cluster fields were replaced with Talisman, despite a slight preference from brewers for Grants Pass Clusters.”
Even though hops continued to flourish, there appeared to be competition for land with other crops, particularly fruit — perhaps most famously Harry & David’s Royal Riviera Pear. Dr. Haunold recalls that Lathrop mentioned getting offers for his fields from both pear and poultry farms. King eventually sold in the 1970s. Lathrop continued farming after his son, who worked with him, suffered severe injuries in a fall while performing maintenance on a hop picker. What finally prompted Lathrop to take an offer for the property — and the timeline — is still uncertain, but growers and researchers have settled on a few theories.
Just as today’s beer drinkers are always chasing the new, exciting hop varieties were debuting in the 1980s and Cluster just couldn’t keep up. Ultimately, it was an old hop that was falling out of favor with producers.
“It sounds like the biggest factor is the fact that there was just one farm down there. They’re kind of an island,” said Michelle Palacios, administrator with the Oregon Hop Commission. “And they grew a variety that was not very popular at the time, and so they had to make a decision: Do we plant something else or do we close shop? And it looks like their decision was to close shop.”
“Perhaps pricing pressures from other higher-alpha hops and also increasing land values convinced Mr. Lathrop to sell his operations,” said Dr. Haunold.
He wasn’t quite sure what became of the land, though Dr. Haunold speculated the pear farm snatched it up. Indeed, fruit bound for those Harry & David gift baskets was grown there by Wild River Orchards and then a family took over the pear trees. The property now feeds individuals in need of assistance thanks to the Josephine County Food Bank, which plants a variety of produce, and the City of Grants Pass.
Now it appears another island of hops has emerged in Southern Oregon. Steve Pierce has hosted plenty of visitors allured by the brewing industry with hopes of starting their own farm, but it’s unclear whether any had success. Even if the Pierce family is the only grower with bines crawling skyward for miles, solitude is not a deterrent.
Farming at Alpha Beta is more of a way of life. It’s where two miniature donkeys — Charlie Brown and Lucy — begin braying for attention first thing in the morning as soon as they hear their owner Morgan Pierce’s voice. It’s where his 4-year-old daughter can wrestle with the dog near the hop yard, and the dog will never tire of trying to get the ornery lamb on the other side of the fence to play. It’s where travelers from another state or country become family — even if only for a few days or months thanks to the Pierces’ participation in Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms, USA (WWOOF), an exchange program for would-be farmers. Volunteers give their labor in order to learn from the producer along with the promise of two meals per day and a place to camp. Alpha Beta Hops relies on their help much like farms decades ago needed migrant workers who erected tent cities and picked. But the experience changes the volunteer lives, too. Steve and Morgan Pierce list off names and tell stories of past WWOOF participants like they’re teachers recounting favorite students: a nano-electrical engineer now travels the globe, farm to farm, with his guitar through the program; a man who desperately needed a change from his job denying health claims spent six months farming with the Pierces.
“We are introduced to all sorts of people from everywhere, all different backgrounds,” Morgan Pierce said. “The WWOOFer program is amazing. We couldn’t do the maintenance and the harvesting and everything without the WWOOFers and our community.”
And those vital members to the Alpha Beta operation gathered at the farm once again for an all-day pickathon at the very end of August. Fingers turned yellow and sticky as buckets filled. Food energized their efforts and beer fed conversation among four generations of people, including the Pierce family. Stories are always shared by those who used to help harvest in Grants Pass — back when cones were a bit harder to get to even with the use of slacked lines and stilts.
“We’re supposed to be picking...” Morgan Pierce described of the annual tradition.
“Well, a lot of talking,” added his dad. “It’s a lot of talking and just constant hum — almost like being in a beer garden.”
By Patty Mamula
For the Oregon Beer Growler
Hops, hops, hops. Everything’s coming up hops at Worthy Brewing Company.
Because of Roger Worthington’s ties to Indie Hops, a company that makes pellets, and its experimental aroma hop program with Oregon State University, Worthy is the main brewery to test out these new varieties.
As Zach Brenneman, Worthy’s head brewer, explained, “They’re working on developing aroma hops that have good brewing qualities, are disease resistant, have high yields and vigor. We may brew with one that consumers really love that’s disease resistant, but doesn’t have good yield.”
It can take years to find a hop that meets all the criteria. Worthy’s 5-barrel pilot brewing system was created for this trial-and-error process. Until the hops prove themselves consistently over time, they are simply identified by number. Last year, Worthy’s team brewed up four pale ales using the experimental varietals 1007-35, C1002-37, G9-1-374 and C115L-1.
“We use a very basic pale ale malt profile and our standard house yeast for these beers,” Brenneman said. “We make the same base beer for each of these brews to focus on the hops we are using. The finished beer will be 5% ABV and in the 30-40 IBU range.”
They served tastings of the four beers at the Bend brewery and several locations in Portland. Brenneman was at Produce Row Café sampling. “In talking with consumers there, I was interested to see how deep some people wanted to dive into this,” he said.
Some of the comments from the tasting cards:
“Would be good in a helles or kolsch.”
“Nice if you are sick of the IPA trend.”
“Super complex, but too assertive.”
“Almost too mellow for a pale ale (like a lager with hop character).”
“Not bad, just not my thing.”
More in-depth comments are solicited from tasters at Worthy. “Our panelists are given instructions on what we are looking for as we taste through each of the beers so that we can send back the best, most informative information about the breeding program hops we brewed with.”
So far, the brightest star of the program, most grown on OSU’s research fields, is Strata, formerly known as X-331. “It has outrageous oil and it’s more in your face. Tasters note its distinct tropical fruit flavor and its dank fragrance similar to cannabis,” said Brenneman. However, Strata was a surprise hit, especially for brewers. In initial sensory evaluations and onsite rub and sniff comparisons, it didn’t stand out.
Worthy’s blog post about Strata said the following: “Until the harvest this fall, the supply of Strata IPA is limited. The 2016 harvest from 9 acres, grown at Goschie and Coleman Farms, was around 18,000 pounds. It was considered a ‘baby’ harvest, the first after the establishment year. The one this fall will be the first mature crop. Reports from the farm are that it’s vigorously growing and yields should be above the average of 2,000 pounds an acre last season. This spring, Indie Hops planted another 60 acres in the valley.”
Worthy’s StrataSphere IPA won a gold medal in the Sessionable Hoppy category at the 2017 Oregon Beer Awards. While it can take 10 years or more to develop a new successful genotype, this one was on an accelerated path of about six years. Strata is an open-pollinated hop, which means seeds that breed true, developed from a German Perle hop.
Strata IPA has been a consistent favorite at Worthy, with its sales often equal to those of the flagship Worthy IPA and in some weeks exceeding it. It’s available in draft only, but after the harvest plans are to package it in 22-ounce bottles.
This fall, Brenneman looks forward to getting a jump on brewing with the experimental hops and plans to dive right in after the fresh-hop beers are finished. He receives the chosen hops from Jim Solberg at Indie Hops in 2-pound foil sacks that have been bagged under gas. Ten pounds of whole-leaf hops are then used for pilot batches. “Our goal is to do a late kettle add and then dry hop in 1 to 1 1/2 pounds per barrel,” he said.
This year Brenneman wants to brew them in pairs — maybe even two on the same day. He would like to have eight experimental beers available during several months to have more options for consumers to taste and compare.
The goal is to keep brewing well-made, balanced beers and involving consumers who are invested in what might be the next new big hop as well as bring new genes into the hop pool. Close to 90 percent of the hops that Worthy uses are Indie Hops grown in Oregon.
You’ll actually find six rows of experimental hops at Worthy’s ever-expanding brewery and pub as part of its demonstration garden. Shaun Townsend, OSU aroma hop breeder who’s directing the hop development program, chose the varieties that would be planted in Bend. Although most of the test fields are in the Willamette Valley, researchers wanted to see how climate and pests would impact hops in Central Oregon.
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