One of the founding partners of Plough Monday, Norm Vidoni, puts in the hard work to make sure his hops are grown organically, which means more labor — like weeding by hand. The Veneta-based brewery isn’t focused on making every batch the same, resulting in a unique experience for the consumer. Photo by Gail Oberst
By Anthony St. Clair
For the Oregon Beer Growler
The vision began with locally sourced, organic ingredients for a true Willamette Valley beer. The reality has proven far more challenging. Veneta-based Plough Monday is adapting and plowing ahead with plans to bring as-local-as-possible beers to Oregon and Washington — despite making hard decisions to veer from their original plans.
Founding partners Norm Vidoni and Charlie Whedbee have been friends and homebrew partners for more than 20 years. From working a farm and trying to meet the challenge of raising organic hops, to learning not only how to brew, but how to build a market for their beers, the two friends keep adapting and learning. Through it all, the crew at Plough Monday has been producing 7 to 10 barrels a week, working toward a local tasting room and refining recipes for bottling and wider distribution of beers such as Fresh Hop Fuggle, American Brown Ale and Northwest Strong Ale. And, more recently, the brewery was certified organic by Oregon Tilth, a nonprofit that’s been advocating for organic agriculture since 1974. In this conversation, Norm Vidoni discusses farming, hops, the importance of local, the decline of organic beers, Plough Monday’s vision and how they are finding their way in a challenging agricultural environment and a crowded market.
What drives your passion for Willamette Valley-grown hops?
NV: Willamette Valley hops have a unique quality. They have less harshness to the bitterness, even at higher alpha acids. I think the aromas don’t have the same strong citrus qualities, but more of the lighter, floral aroma qualities. The climate here is much more similar to the climates in England and Germany, where they have those Noble varieties.
What are the challenges of growing hops organically?
NV: You have to be careful with organic inputs. Too much copper in the soil can make it so you can’t grow things. Weeding has to be done by hand, since you can’t use herbicides. Input is higher, but your output per acre is lower than it would be if using conventional fertilizers. These problems are causing people to start dropping out of organic hop production, and we likely will see drops in organic beer production.
How do mildew problems affect what you can grow?
NV: There’s one hop that’s totally downy mildew resistant, and that’s Magnum. That’s a great hop, and I’ve got lots of Magnums, but I think it’s only good as a bittering hop.
Fuggle, Golding, Perle and Orion all have some resistance, so they grow well here without getting decimated by downy mildew. No other hops can be grown organically here.
The hops industry hasn’t been focused on developing hops with these disease resistances. The Willamette Valley could be much more competitive in hop production if that had happened, but the focus has been growing hops that grow better in Yakima.
How are you adapting your own beer production?
NV: We’re recalibrating, long-term, for having sourcing as local as possible be more of a long-term goal than an immediate goal. It’s a quality decision. I really wish that there was more desire within the industry and the market for Willamette Valley-grown hops at this point.
What beers and styles will you be putting out?
NV: We’re moving more towards traditionally Northwest-style ales, but we are going to continue making the malt-forward, English-style beers, but with Northwest ingredients.
When we came into this, we had big hopes we could have a dogmatic, 100 percent local product. I see us moving more toward sourcing locally even if it’s out of our way, but if we can’t source it locally, we focus on where we get the quality or organic we seek. That’s disappointing to change from our original plan, but it helps us put out a product that the market wants.
How do you want people to view Plough Monday?
NV: We want to always be an artisanal brewery.
When we bottle, the bottles will have batch numbers. We aren’t focused on every batch being the same or every bottle being the same. We are always going to tweak our recipes and processes in between batches. We want there to be a variety, because we are always changing, learning, trying new things. That makes for an interesting product, and it allows you as a consumer to have some surprise in what you’re going to have. As time goes on, we hope to have three to five flagship, regular beers, then everything else work their way around those regular beers.
I’ve farmed organically for years, and I believe in it. I believe in trying to source locally. It’s great for the economy. It’s an important thing for the community at large to have these services, this agricultural production, within the community itself. But at the end of the day, people like to eat bananas, and those can’t be grown locally. We’re learning that we have to allow ourselves more flexibility than we’ve allowed ourselves to this point.
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Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.