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Outdated carpeting aside, the next challenge came years later when Pierce decided to turn an adjacent hay field into a hospitable environment for hops.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 Tiah Edmunson-Morton
For the Oregon Beer Growler
Oregon native and environmental historian Dr. Peter Kopp recently returned to his home state to educate an audience about the history of a very special beer ingredient that’s the focus of his new book. “Hoptopia: A World of Agriculture and Beer in Oregon’s Willamette Valley” was the focus of the talk held at Oregon State University. Kopp’s research illustrates how the hop in Oregon offers a fascinating glimpse into the way our “sense of place” is reflected through the physical, cultural and social aspects of the industry.
While Dr. Kopp focuses heavily on the history of Willamette Valley and Pacific Northwest hop farming and culture, his book travels to ancient Sumer, visits the boom times for the hop industry along the East Coast and then delves into the years where the Willamette Valley was the hop center of the world. Also included is the birth of the Cascade variety at OSU in the early 1970s along with tales from present-day Beervana. Additionally, Kopp connects the broader global history of beer to local farmers, scientists and the magnificent hop.
His research draws heavily from local sources, so you’ll find that farmers, laborers, brewers, historians and scientists all have strong voices in this book. In addition to creating a thorough academic text on the global impact of this specialty crop, Kopp encourages his audience to become curious about where our food comes from. He suggests that "plants have incredible stories to tell, they just lack an easy way of telling them" and that "capturing these stories offer ways to rethink environment, agriculture, labor, business and science over time"
Kopp has written and presented extensively on projects related to agricultural and environmental history, and he often focuses more specifically on local history, culture and traditions. While he's taken a turn toward more coverage on horticulturalist Fabian Garcia and his work with chilies, another specialty crop that is closer to Kopp’s current home in New Mexico, much of his writing has related to hops and brewing in the Northwest. The stories of annual hop harvests, the local and global roots of the craft beer revolution and prohibition are all areas of interest to Kopp.
As the director of the Oregon Hops and Brewing Archives, I work with a wide range of researchers and scholars, advocate for accessible local history, collect oral histories and gather records that document the history of "fermentable liquids" in our region. I hope that Dr. Kopp's book will inspire you to get involved in saving and sharing our local history. It is a must-have for people curious about the rich regional history poured into their pint glass!
Want to get involved with saving local brewing history? Contact Tiah Edmunson-Morton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-737-7387.
Learn more about OHBA at scarc.library.oregonstate.edu/ohba.html and more about our collections at bit.ly/ohbaguide.
Read more about Dr. Kopp at thebrewstorian.tumblr.com/search/kopp.
By Bruce Pokarney, Oregon Department of Agriculture
For the Oregon Beer Growler
While you quietly sip a beer this month, it’s more than likely that Judy Parent and Erin Harding were painstakingly picking leaves and stems from the Oregon hops that might be an ingredient of that brew. The two women aren’t necessarily cleaning up the hops but, in fact, inspecting samples of this year’s harvest for seeds, leaves and stems — the undesirable elements of hops.
It’s an annual six-week ritual performed by the Oregon Department of Agriculture’s Commodity Inspection Program. The state’s $34.5 million hop industry depends on grading done by ODA.
“ODA provides an invaluable service,” says Michelle Palacios, administrator of the Oregon Hops Commission. “Hops are sold on contract. In order to market the product, growers need an accurate analysis of their crop. The greater the accuracy, the greater the confidence brewers have in Oregon hops.”
Each “lot” of hops grown in Oregon is sampled and inspected for seed, leaf and stem content. That’s the job of a close-knit team of inspectors — some of whom are retirees who have already given years of full-time service to ODA in other jobs. Now they work hard and fast, but only in August and September after hops are harvested.
Once inspected, the grower receives a certificate for that lot. The sale to the brewer is based on that certificate. The lower the percentage of seed, leaf and stem, the better the price of the hops. ODA inspectors are considered third-party participants. They don’t take sides in the process, but merely determine the percentage.
“We have a very good relationship with the growers,” says Randy Black, who manages the seasonal inspection program. “They know we are unbiased, honest, very precise and accurate.”
Each sample is identified by a number corresponding to the appropriate grower. Most of the hops come from nearby fields as a majority of the crop in Oregon is grown in the area between St. Paul, Woodburn and Mt. Angel. The Salem-based “inspection facility” is not some kind of high-tech clean room with white tables and antiseptic walls, but it is appropriate for what needs to happen. Up to a half-dozen inspectors gather daily during the season to do what they do best — sift through hops with tweezers in search of leaves and stems.
“It’s a fairly easy job to do and just a matter of looking closely at the hops to be sure you pick out all the leaves and stems from the sample,” says Parent, who has come back every summer for 15 years to help out. This is after three decades of service to ODA as the agency’s payroll coordinator.
“My only challenge in this job is that I laugh a lot,” says the 20-something Harding, who also does other commodity inspection work for ODA. “If you laugh, cough or sneeze when your face is close to the hops, those hops blow everywhere.”
The inspectors typically pick through 80-110 grams at a time once the hops have been put through an eighth-inch screen to remove the fine debris. Once all the leaves and stems have been removed from the sample, a percentage is determined after the hops are reweighed. A separate process is designed to find seeds. A sample that is between 40-60 grams is baked for two hours at 118 degrees. After baking, the sample is threshed until individual seeds remain. They are counted and another percentage is calculated. It all sounds like an old-fashioned recipe for some unique brew. In fact, the only thing cooked up are some numbers and percentages that translate into the price of the crop — something important to both grower and buyer.
“Buyers could start docking the grower right off the top if there is more leaf, stem or seed than the contract calls for,” says Black. “If there is too much, the lot can be rejected.”
Growers receive premiums if the samples are cleaner than average or deductions if they aren’t. ODA inspection means quite a bit to both parties.
Oregon ranks second, only behind Washington, in hop production. Last year, 6,600 acres produced 10.6 million pounds of hops in Oregon. The Pacific Northwest produces nearly all of the nation’s hops and about 30 percent of the world’s supply. This year’s acreage strung for harvest has increased 16 percent compared to 2015. Acreage has gone up 57 percent the past five years while the value has remained relatively steady.
The 2016 crop appears to be average quality. Warm spring temperatures led to some early bloom for certain aroma hop varieties, but the mild July helped steady the growth.
With the arrival of a booming craft brewing scene in Oregon, the rest of the U.S., and internationally, the world of hops has changed a bit.
“The hop industry has several large dealer/merchants that growers contract with to purchase their hops,” says Palacios. “Over the course of the past decade, growers have increasingly marketed at least a percentage of their crop directly to craft brewers. The success of the craft industry can be attributed, in part, to success in telling their story to their customer. And when a brewer can directly source hops from a grower, they can continue to tell that story through the hops and the beer they make with those hops. Generally, craft brewers seek the connection to their raw materials. With the Oregon hop growing region in such close proximity to Oregon’s craft brewers, the relationship between the two industries has continued to grow.”
Just as ODA’s commodity inspectors are a band of specialized workers, so are those who grow hops in Oregon. There are only about 30 multi-generational family farms producing hops in the entire state. A few new hop growers have emerged in recent years as the strong market attracts farmers who might want to consider getting into the business. However, hop production on a commercial scale requires a significant up-front investment, which is a limiting factor for many would-be growers.
It is truly an industry that remains all in the family. And for the inspectors who look at the product? For six weeks each year, it’s like a family reunion.
By Jim McLaren
For the Oregon Beer Growler
The chickens in the yard are scratching at it.
A giant sprinkler in an adjoining scrub field is wetting it down.
Horses are grazing in the grass growing in it the next field over.
And beyond that, a young buck is bedding down in the shade of a tree line bordering another field — the dirt still warm from the afternoon sun.
The dirt is on Sauvie Island and Jordan LeaJames is worried it might not be good enough. If it is good enough, why hasn’t anyone else grown hops here?
That question was actually the third in a series that brought Jordan to this place. The first was to a young teacher named Maya: “Will you marry me?” The second question was asked of Maya’s uncle, who makes very good homebrew: “Did you ever think about growing your own hops here?”
The answer to the first question was “Yes.” To the second question, Maya’s aunt said ‘If you want to try it, go ahead.”
Sauvie Island, just outside of Portland, is bordered by the Willamette and Columbia Rivers and the Multnomah Channel. Named for a 19th century French-Canadian dairy farmer, the low-lying, 24,000-acre island is best known for its dozens of farms, nurseries and gardens. While another important beer-making ingredient, barley, is harvested on Sauvie, that didn’t answer Jordan’s question. Will this dirt grow hops?
Jordan knows what that takes. He’s had hops in his Northeast Portland backyard for about seven years. Plus he has a professional background in environmental engineering. Still, most Oregon hop farms are farther south in the Willamette Valley.
So before they decided to plant, Jordan and Maya scooped up some Sauvie Island dirt, boxed it up and sent it to an Eastern Oregon lab that analyzes soil. Jordan says they also “provide a recommendation on fertilizing, what you need to do to amend the soil, change the pH. They email you the results.” He continues, “When I got the email, it had all the results – to me they were just a lot of numbers, it looked good. But then the attachment, where they recommend what kind of fertilizing and what schedule to utilize, that page was blank.”
Blank! Is that good or bad? Jordan called a tech who explained, “The reason that page is blank is that your soil is so perfect for what you’re doing.” The analysis found that Sauvie Island dirt beat all the benchmarks. Nothing needed to be added.
Jordan and Maya understood why. The new hop farm would be a small part of a 26-acre parcel where nothing had been planted for about 30 years. Jordan says his uncle-in-law told him “They’ve just been mowing it, recycling and concentrating the nutrients into the soils. The soil is just super rich.” Maya, who grew up on a houseboat on the Multnomah Channel, remembers something else that helped: “The ’96 flood added nutrients.” Good news, yes. But better news was coming. Maya was pregnant. Both the farm and a family were beginning at the same time.
Farming can be a slow, deliberate process, but also hurried and deadline oriented. And this hop yard was behind schedule — in part because Jordan and his father John McCann were learning production farming. Also, as small growers, supply companies put them at the back of the line. But the pair pushed ahead and spent a lot of time prepping the soil for 600 plants.
“Cultivating the soil is hard,” John explains. “The clay is just about 3 or 4 inches down.”
Jordan adds, “It’s just loaded with so many roots — years and years of these grass root balls. We had to chop up each one. We used a rototiller, but you can only get so far with a hand-driven rototiller. What we should’ve done is plow the whole field first.”
“That’s what we will do in the future,” John says.
The process was further slowed when the farmers had to wait an extra month-and-a-half for trellis poles. Those poles finally arrived on a Thursday. Work and stress intensified for everyone that weekend when Maya went into labor. She delivered a healthy baby boy named Mateo. And as the family grew, so did the farm. Maya’s uncle and father-in-law continued boring holes for the trellis system. Jordan and his father then planted the hop rhizomes and hung special coir ropes, which the bines climb as they grow. The pair then carved out a second, smaller field using a circus tent-type trellis system. Jordan thinks it could make harvesting easier.
Terroir is what wine growers call the effect a particular place has on a grape — it’s the culmination of earth, climate and farming techniques. And that may be just as important to the flavor of hops. “I assume that the type of soil can definitely have an impact on that,” Jordan says before he ticks off the hops he is growing. “Cascade, Chinook, Crystal, Centennial, Galena and Willamette hops” are his choices after talking to brewers.
Since Sauvie Island Hops is new and still growing, the farm may only sell fresh hops in its first year. But looking to operations like Ladyhops and Smith Rock Hop Farm in Central Oregon, Jordan knows there’s a market for cones right off the bine from smaller producers. “A lot of brewers look at it as a challenge to come up with something, like a really good fresh hop. It’s something that needs to be consumed within a few weeks of being bottled.”
Sauvie Island Hops didn’t plant until early May and will need a long, slow end to summer for its first crop to fully ripen. Meanwhile, sitting next to the hop yard, Jordan daydreams. Maybe, he imagines, there will be a small brewery in his future that creates farmhouse ales. Maybe he’ll create a special strain of hop named after his son. It’s all possible, you know, because the dirt is good.
Sauvie Island Hops
By Dustin Gouker
For the Oregon Beer Growler
Andrew Bloo was not a farmer before founding Cascade Hop Farm, despite the fact that his roots were in agriculture.
“I was the first person that didn’t farm in my entire family,” Bloo said on a recent warm August morning in the shadow of his second-year farm near Bend, just outside of the small town of Tumalo.
After a career spent mostly in business — in marketing and as CEO of a software company — Bloo turned to hop farming as a way to spend more time with his family while starting a new endeavor.
Despite a lack of experience — outside of voluminous research on hop farming conducted by Bloo and help from his family of farmers — the first year resulted in a successful fresh-hop crop in 2015. Redmond’s Wild Ride Brewing used Cascade Hop Farm’s product for its Three Sisters Wet Hopped Red Ale.
“It’s exciting from the standpoint that someone showed the faith to buy it from us, a first-year farm, a local provider, instead of going to Yakima or over to the [Willamette] Valley,” Bloo said.
The Three Sisters beer quickly sold out last year, and Wild Ride came back to Bloo’s farm for enough hops to make a double batch this year.
The farm is also contracted with Central Oregon’s Cascade Lakes Brewing Company and Juniper Brewing Company this year. Bendistillery — literally right next door to the property — is also experimenting with a hop-infused product, Bloo said.
After that first year, Cascade Hop Farm has already increased its hop acreage from one to three acres in 2016. Another acre is planned for the coming years. But it wasn’t all smooth sailing in year two for Cascade: A late, hard frost in the middle of June killed most of the plants. But good weather and a solid root system allowed Bloo to start over nearly from scratch right as summer was starting. The farm, which is growing Centennial, Cascade and Nugget hops — is planning on harvesting early in September.
Cascade Hop Farm has helped to prove the so-called “craft hops” movement is on in earnest in Central Oregon, with a handful of small farms providing hops for area breweries.
For Central Oregon brewers, the advantage of getting their fresh hops locally is that the time from pick to boil is cut down dramatically. Getting hops from the big growers west of the Cascades or in Washington could take hours. Hops at Cascade Hop Farm or another local grower could go from bine to brewing in half an hour.
“You have such a limited window,” Bloo said on the harvest period for fresh hops. “A., you have to schedule a brewing opportunity, and B., your crop has to be ready. You can’t really sell hops until it’s time, and there’s this kind of tension of when brewers need it and when you can actually harvest a quality crop.”
Cascade has a lot of other things going for it besides having a quality product and attracting brewers who want to support a local business. Most of the property on which the farm is set is a wildlife preserve. The grounds surrounding the farm have been left in a natural state, and hop trimmings and spent bines are placed around the preserve so that animals can use it for habitat.
It’s also a truly family endeavor.
Bloo’s wife and children were out surveying the land in the morning as Bloo talked about the farm. Bloo’s mother lives in a house and acreage right next door to the farm and checks on the plants daily. Bloo’s father also visits regularly and plies his agricultural expertise to help the farm get off the ground.
“Our goal is really to do this as a family and spend our time out here,” Bloo said.
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