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Outdated carpeting aside, the next challenge came years later when Pierce decided to turn an adjacent hay field into a hospitable environment for hops.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.”
Above, Workers at Crosby's Hop Farm near Woodburn.
Following -- Emily Engdahl put this great list together for the Oregon Beer Growler's print edition. Those who want to hold this list in their hands can pick it up Oct. 1 here. If you want to see Emily's list on her website, go to http://oregonbeercountry.org. Thanks Emily!
List compiled by Emily Engdahl
For the Oregon Beer Growler
10 Barrel | Crosby Farms Harvest Ale | 5.5% | 55 IBU
Base Camp | Golden Hopportunity Belgian IPA | 10%
Base Camp | In-2-Tents |
Base Camp | Hopularity Contest Pale Ale | 5.3%
Breakside | Fresh Hop Citra | 6.5%
Brewers Union 180 | Little Green Men Cask Cond’d IPA | 5.5%
Bridgeport BridgePort | Hop Harvest | 8.0% | 60 IBU
Claim 52 | Whoa-Dang Fresh Harvest Ale | 5.5% | 55 IBU
Coalition Brewing | Green Pig Fresh Hop Pale Ale | 5.0 % | 50 IBU
Coalition Brewing | Simply Dank Fresh Hop ISA | 4.0% | 40 IBU
Crux Fermentation Project | Cruxtennial Belgian Pale Ale | 7.0% | 35 IBU
Crux Fermentation Project | Off the Fence
Crux Fermentation Project | Crystal Zwickel
Deschutes Bend | Hop Trip | 5.4% | 38 IBU
Deschutes Bend | Chasin’ Freshies | 7.2% | 65 IBU
Deschutes Bend | Cinder Cone Red | 5.9% | 47 IBU
Deschutes Portland | Fresh Hop Bitter | 5.0% | 43 IBU
Deschutes Portland | King Cone Deluxe | 6.4% | 55 IBU
Deschutes Portland | Fresh Hop Mirror Pond | 5.0% | 40 IBU
Deschutes Portland | Oktoberfest | 6.1% | 30 IBU
Double Mountain | Killer Green IPA | 7.5% | 75 IBU
Double Mountain | Killer Red IRA | 7.2% | 97 IBU
Double Mountain | Killer Brass IPA | 7.9% | 88 IBU
Falling Sky | So Fresh, So Green Fresh Hop Lager | 5.7%
Falling Sky | Nuggets of Wisdom Fresh Hop | 5.5%
Fort George Brewery | Co-Hoperative Ale | 5%
Fort George Brewery | Fresh Hop Sunrise Oatmeal Pale Ale |5.3%
Fort George Brewery | Fresh Hop Belgian | 7.5%
Fort George Brewery | Hopstoria | 5.6%
Full Sail | Full Sail Fresh Hop Pilsner | 6.0% | 60 IBU
Gilgamesh Brewing | Fresh Prince of Ales Fresh Hopped DIPA | 6.9% | 100+ IBU
Harvester | Harvester Fresh Hop Meridian Pale Ale | 5.3% | 30 IBU
Hop Valley | Citra Self Down “Fresh Hop” Pale Ale | 6% | 40 IBU
Hopworks | Bitchin’ Camaro Fresh Hop Lager | 6.0% | 60 IBU
Hopworks | Fuggin’ A Fresh Hop IPX Single Hop Ale | 5.7% | 48 IBU
Humble Brewing | Larch Creek Harvest Ale | 7% | 66 IBU
Laurelwood | Fresh Hop Mother Lode Golden Ale | 5.1% | 25 IBU
Laurelwood | Workhorse IPA | 7.5% | 80 IBU
Laurelwood | Fresh Hop Pale (Project 21) | 5.9% | 35 IBU
Laurelwood | Free-Range Red | 6.1% | 60 IBU
Lompoc | Harvestman Red | |6.1 % | 60 IBU
Lucky Lab | The Mutt | 3.6%
McMenamin’s | Thundercone Fresh Hop Ale | 6.9% | 44 IBU
McMemamin’s | Roseburg Station | Hopqua | 6.8% | 67 IBU
McMenamin’s | Old St. Francis (Bend) | Golden Sparrow Fresh Hop | 5.2% | 45 IBU
Migration | Glisan Street Fresh Hop Pale Ale | 5.1% | 33 IBU
Migration | Wild Style Fresh Hop Farm House Ale | 6.1% | 39 IBU
Migration | Better Off Fresh IPA | 7.5% | 85 IBU
Ninkasi | Total Crystalation IPA | 6.7% | 65 IBU
Ninkasi | Hop Fraiche | 5.2% | 40 IBU
Oakshire | ‘Bout a Hunerd Hops Pale Ale
Oakshire | Rogue Red Rye IPA
Old Market Pub | Schrader Brau Fresh Hopped Oktoberfest | 4.5% | 12 IBU
Old Town Brewing | Cent’s and Centsability Pale Ale | 5.5%
Old Town Brewing | Freshtoberbrau | 5.8%
Pelican Brewery | Elemental Ale | 5.4% | 55 IBU
Pfriem | Fresh Hop Mosaic Belgian Wheat | 5.1% | 18 IBU
Pints | Seismic Upgrade Imperial IPA | 8.2% | 100+ IBU
Pints | Oktoberfresh | 5.7% | 17 IBU
Pints | Crystal Lite Lager | 4.1% |10 IBU
Portland U Brew & Pub | Freshy Foystons Pale Ale | 5.8%
Portland U Brew & Pub | Papa Paul’s White Wall Pale Ale | 6.0%
Salem Ale Works | Triple F IPA | 6.0 %
Santiam Brewing | Hoppy Froppy | 6.3%
Santiam Brewing | Hopville Rye Pale Ale | 5.2%
Santiam Brewing | Fresh Hop Brown Ale | 4.8%
Sasquatch | Oregon Session Ale | 4.7%
Sasquatch | Woodboy IPA | 6.8%
Sasquatch | Red Electric IRA | 6.7%
Sasquatch | Healy Heights Pale | 5.6%
Sasquatch | Celilo CDA | 8.0% +/-
Silver Moon | Hoppopotamus Fresh Ale | 6.5%
Sky High | Fresh Hop Ale | 5.0% | 25 IBU
Solera | Chubby Bunny Fresh Hop DIPA | 9.5%
Stickmen | Single Malt – Single Hop (SMaSH) | 5.8% | 34 IBU
The Commons | Fresh Hop Myrtle | 5.3%
Three Creeks | Cone Lick’r Fresh Hop Ale | 5%
Three Creeks | Hop Wrangler Fresh Hop Red | 5%
Upright | The Hop and the Abstract Truth Belgian style pale/triticale saison | 5.1% | 30+ IBU
Vertigo | Hop Harvest IPA | 5.3% | 45 IBU
Viking Braggot | 100 Day Anniversary ESB | 5.5% | 50 IBU
Widmer Brothers | Dark and Dank Fresh Hop Lager | 5.1%
Widmer Brothers | Bring the Boom Fresh Hop IPL | 6.6%
By Emily Engdahl
As Oregon’s fresh hop season begins, curiosity is piqued as to how these little powerhouses help to create our thriving beer culture. I had an opportunity to talk with Nancy Frketich of the Oregon Hop Commission and Brian Butenschoen of the Oregon Brewers Guild, where I learned all about Oregon’s green gem. Known botanically as Humulus lupulus, the female cone flower (whose name can be loosely translated to “wolf among the weeds”) is lovingly tattooed and affectionately illustrated on many brewers, beer lovers and geeks across the state. Aside from the creative fodder for body art, this plant (related to tomatoes and marijuana) is on the rise as one of Oregon’s agricultural darlings.
According to documents provided by the Oregon Hop Commission, “the Oregon hop industry is currently made up of approximately twenty five growers in nineteen farming families. In 2012 they harvested 4470 acres, producing over 8.4 million pounds of hops.” The average large scale hop farm in Oregon runs about 200 acres. According to Frketich, most of them have been in business for three and four generations, and collectively provide between twenty to twenty five distinct varieties of hops for export and use by local breweries, with ‘Willamette’, ‘Nugget’ and ‘Cascade’ as the three most widely grown varieties. Our hop growing region, situated around the 45th parallel, is similar to that of Germany’s hop growing region; Oregon is especially conducive to producing aroma-type hops with exceptional quality.
Now, more than ever before, Oregon hop growers are selling direct to breweries. Benefiting from the craft brew craze, many new varieties have been developed and planted for the craft brewers. Like any other free market commodity, supply is driven by demand – and a few new, very small, boutique hop farms (some with less than ten acres) are popping up despite some giant hurdles. The main problem with garnering new interest and enticing farmers into the hop industry remains, Frketich explains, as “the equipment needed to start a commercial hop farm can run up to two million dollars, not including the land or the trellis; that only includes the picking, drying and baling equipment.”
Despite some setbacks, there continue to be inroads for the hop industry. Frketich elaborates, “Acreage is on its way back on the increase which is good after having three or so years” in decline. That increase is good news for the pockets of hop farmers here in Oregon: although exported hops from Oregon are generally combined with Washington and Idaho hops, reports Frketich, this combination of Pacific NW hops make up approximately 86% of the US hop crop exported overseas. The United States is second only to Germany in the export of hops, and our domestic hops are exported to more than sixty five countries throughout the world, including the United Kingdom, Belgium, Germany, Mexico, Brazil and China. If those numbers excite you, ponder this: Oregon ranks second in hop production for the United States (Washington is first and Idaho is third). Among all Oregon agricultural commodities, hops rank twenty first with a total farm gate value of $31.2 million. That’s a lot of lupulin (the magical substance that gives hops their resinous, aromatic & bittering power)! According to Butenschoen of the Oregon Brewers Guild, Oregon brewers produced 1.3 million barrels of beer last year. Using figures from 2011, an average of 1.8 pounds of hops per barrel of beer means that Oregon breweries are responsible for using about 3.8% of the total hops grown in the United States.
The Oregon Hop Commission’s commitment to education and support of the hop community is key, as found in detailed information on their website, www.oregonhops.org. While the financial outlook for hop farming is on the rise, many key factors remain in determining the success of our hop bounty. Here in Oregon, our temperate climate and rainfall create a perfect environment to grow these green cones of delight. Diseases and pests are a concern; powdery mildew, downy mildew, hop aphid, two-spotted spider mite, and garden symphylans threaten the hop bines. To combat threats to the crops, the Oregon hop industry works with hop researchers at Oregon State University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to solve these issues, participating in the Hop Research Council – a non-profit organization focusing and funding research projects to benefit the United States’ hop industry.
Hops begin to emerge from their rhizomes in mid-March, growing on a system of crisscrossing cables and wires supported by tall wooden poles. Hops naturally will climb as they grow, but to maximize yield, growers use a technique called “training,” where shoots are selected and encouraged to grow in a clockwise direction up the string. The first bines are usually to the top of the wire in early June. (A bine climbs via shoots growing in a helix around a support. Bines are differentiated from vines, which climb using tendrils or suckers.) Once they hit the top of the wire, side bines create the structure upon which the hop cones grow.
Our Oregon harvest begins in mid August, and lasts about 6 weeks. According to the Commission’s website, although hop harvest is highly mechanized, it remains one of the most labor intensive times of the season, with some farms harvesting twenty four hours a day. Before leaving the farm, hops are compressed into 200-pound, burlap wrapped bales. Finally, each bale is labeled with identifying information: Crop year, variety, grower number, and lot number, then inspected by the US and Oregon Departments of Agriculture. That’s a lot of work to get the beautiful and aromatic hop cones where they need to go – most importantly, into the glasses of Oregon’s beer lovers. The next time you enjoy an Oregon beer, pause to give thanks for the many men and women working behind the scenes to create a vibrant and healthy hop scene here in Oregon. And if you ever get a chance to visit a hop farm during harvest season, take it. There are few things comparable to the scent and scene of harvest; a blizzard of hops, green and fresh from the bine.
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