By Patty Mamula
For the Oregon Beer Growler
The McMenamins experience is one that is simultaneously unique and connected to the cosmic center that holds together the magical collection of quirky brewpubs. Its celebration of the fall hop harvest perfectly illustrates the company’s originality.
In early September, McMenamins brewers make identical batches of Thundercone Fresh Hop Ale on the same day. Then about two weeks later, they release the Thundercone, again on the same day, at all brewery locations. The same beer plays out a little differently at each spot. The process of making Thundercone was aptly named the “Running of the Brewers” by Brian McMenamin when the beer was first introduced seven years ago.
“When fresh-hop brews became popular, we decided to try one,” said Rob Vallance, brewery general manager. “And Northwest fresh hops are the grandfather of all hops. My predecessor approached Doug Weathers, the owner of Sodbuster Farms in Salem,” he said.
Sodbuster is a family farm that grows more than 14 varieties of aromatic and bittering hops and has been cultivating the crop since 1958. They sell hops to many local breweries and were happy to add McMenamins to the list.
Vallance said, “Cascade hops were the most popular and best known, so we decided to go with Cascade hops that first year.”
A team of brewers known as the Recipe Development Squad decided on a style and ingredients. “They didn’t want an IPA,” said Vallance, “so they went with an American pale ale with Pilsner and Carastan malts. Nothing has changed. The base is still the same. The hops may vary from year to year.”
Hop harvest in the Northwest traditionally begins the first or second week of September. As that time approaches, the Thundercone team preparation gets into full swing.
“We start planning in mid-August,” said Jessica Standley, brewery administration, public relations and social media. “We can’t over-plan. We usually get a three-day notice before the harvest day. That’s part of the unique quality of the Running of the Brewers.”
Weathers, the hop expert, maintains close connections with his brewing partners and determines the harvest date. He chooses the variety that looks best each year. Last year it was Simcoe. This year the hop variety will be Cascade. “We are shooting for a harvest and brew date of Sept. 7,” Vallance said.
The brewers at the 21 breweries make sure they have all their other ingredients on hand, prepare the mash bill and prep the wort so they can drop the fresh hops in the brew the minute they arrive. (No easy feat, to be sure.)
On harvest day, brewery managers show up at the farm early in the morning. The hop bines are cut, the cones are separated and the sticky, green hops are put into 30-pound burlap totes.
Then the fun begins. The delicate flavors of fresh hops are diminished by time and temperature. The Running of the Brewers helps ensure the temperamental flowers are quickly and safely delivered to 21 different breweries. “We all take varying routes and full totes of hops, and within hours they will be going into the brew,” said Standley. “We go in completely different directions. We have eight or nine routes with multiple stops. The largest route has six locations.”
Vallance coordinates the assorted vehicles and drivers. “So far we’ve been lucky enough not to have any major last minute catastrophes,” he said. The brewery that’s farthest north is McMenamins Mill Creek, some 235 miles from Sodbuster. The north Washington brewery manager takes the hops to that location and makes stops in Olympia and Bothell, which is home to the new Anderson School. The southernmost deliver goes to McMenamins Roseburg Station and Pub. Lincoln City’s Lighthouse Brewpub is a stand-alone delivery. Although McMenamins has numerous locations throughout Oregon and Washington, 65 in all, most of the breweries are near the I-5 corridor, meaning they are situated just hours from the fresh hops.
Justin Azevedo, the Wilsonville brewer, will be making Thundercone for his third year. “We all have the same brew sheets and the same grains. The hops might change from year to year. They are a late kettle addition. We want to preserve all the delicate flavor.” Azevedo continued, “The neat thing from a brewing perspective is the similar concept to terroir with grapes. The hops are right out of the field; the fresh hops preserve all the flavors of the fields.”
Azevedo feels fortunate that Wilsonville is so close to Sodbuster, and he’s one of the first locations to receive the hops. “This is one of our biggest events,” he said. “Everyone gets ready for when the hops come in. It’s a fun, seasonal treat.”
Standley tracks the exact time that hops arrive at the breweries, the distance traveled and other fun stats, like how many cups of coffee were consumed during the Running of the Brewers. All this information, plus photos, are posted online at mcmenamins.com/Thundercone.
Vallance said that all the brew houses receive the same amount, about 30 pounds, with two exceptions. The new Anderson School will receive close to 50 pounds and Edgefield will get about 100 since these two sites have bigger systems.
The Running of the Brewers is organized chaos over one day, leading to the release of Thundercone Fresh Hop Ale several weeks later. “It’s usually all gone within a couple weeks, a month at the most,” said Vallance.
Start looking for it mid-September and order it as often as you can.
By Kris McDowell
For the Oregon Beer Growler
The writer behind the recently published zine, A Feminist's Guide to Beer Drinking, is unsurprisingly, a girl (and yes, she's OK being a "girl"). She's also a certified Cicerone, coauthor of the book “Hop in the Saddle” and has her first solo book coming out this fall.
Before Lucy Burningham came to the beer mecca that is Portland, she was living in Utah, which has laws she diplomatically describes as "weird." Those used to the beer-favorable laws found here, however, might describe Utah’s limit of 4% ABV on beers sold at grocery stores and convenience stores “shockingly antiquated.” Moreover, so-called “high point beer” with an ABV above 4% is limited to bottles only, even at state liquor stores, breweries, bars and restaurants. Those laws have resulted in a general lack of craft beer (although that is slowly changing) and for Lucy, a lack of a palate for beer.
When she moved to Portland in 2005 to pursue a master's in creative nonfiction writing at Portland State University, she fell in love with the city after being wooed, in part, by its craft beer scene. While interviewing a beer sommelier for her first beer article she not only learned that beer could taste like bananas; Burningham was also impressed with the beer culture. People knew the brewers, they expressed a tremendous amount of pride for local beers and were passionate about their favorites. It's not hard to understand how she became hooked on Portland, on drinking craft beer and on writing about craft beer.
That first beer article turned out to be the start of a new point of interest and direction in her journalistic career. Lucy had written for years about food. In fact, the thesis for her master's was on Oregon truffles. But Portland's beer enticed her to explore her beer palate. Jumping into craft beer Portland-style, IPAs were her first love due to what she describes as their "bracing bitterness." Beyond being drawn in by the taste, her curiosity was piqued by the wide variety of color variations both within and across beer styles. All of this combined with her journalistic skills to produce pieces for well-known publications such as Bon Appetit, Men’s Journal, The New York Times and SAVEUR.
Out of her vast collection of writing, it was Lucy's first piece for The New York Times that she is most proud of. The article, “A Hop and a Sip to Fresh Ales,” was not only her first high-profile beer piece, but its research put her on a hop farm for the first time. At Sodbuster Farms in Salem, she was introduced to the excitement and incredible smells of the hop harvest. That, along with other beer experiences, opened her eyes to how much there was to explore, which she continued to do through writing. It also spurred her to pursue formal beer education and become a Certified Cicerone.
The Cicerone Certification Program offers three levels of certification with Certified Cicerone being the second, giving students a well-rounded education on beer as well as the skills needed to assess beer quality. Passing a comprehensive exam is necessary for certification and Lucy took the preparation to heart. She learned what it’s like to be a beer student — experiencing the intense pressure and feelings of being completely overwhelmed. Tough decisions arose, including times where she wasn’t sure whether she should just simply sip and enjoy a beer or continue to study in order to pass the exam. Her hard work and dedication paid off when she passed the exam and, as a bonus, she realized she had the content for her forthcoming book, “My Beer Year.”
Lucy Burningham writes about beer for well-known publications and has a new zine called A Feminist’s Guide to Beer Drinking. The journalist wanted to expand her experience with food writing by turning to beer after moving from Utah to Portland and falling love with the craft beer culture. Photo by Kris McDowell
While it will be a few months before her new book is available, her most recent work, A Feminist's Guide to Beer Drinking, is available in hard copy and online. Part of the Portland Zine series, it's one in a set of independently published booklets that reflects the progressive spirit and DIY ethos of the city. When Lucy was initially approached about the guide, she wasn’t sure she could pull it off. As she was brainstorming her approach, she started thinking about the women in the Oregon beer world and how they help to define it. Before she knew it, she was excited about what lay ahead.
With her proposal accepted, she interviewed a number of women, including Gayle Goschie of Goschie Farms, Miranda Kasten of Lady Brew Portland, Teri Fahrendorf of the Pink Boots Society and Whitney Burnside of 10 Barrel Brewing. She wanted the project to be part serious and part playful. It starts off serious, with a section on Gayle where she talks about her role in taking over a portion of the family hop-growing business and changing its focus to craft brewers to meet the changing times.
The playful tone becomes apparent as you move through the pages and find articles such as “How to Evaluate Beer Like a Lady *Or a Man *Or Fluid Gender of Preference.” There's also a guide for hosting a ladies' beer night that concludes with the instruction to "dream about your next ladies' beer night." In addition to Lucy's writing style, the zine's tone is assisted by illustrations from Deirdre Mahon and the layout, reminiscent of a scrapbook of favorite memories, pulls off the balance she was looking for.
The balance in the zine reflects a similar balance in Lucy's feelings about gender in craft beer. While acknowledging that gender can't be ignored and there are still biases and stereotypes, it's not something that she focuses on. Rather it's something that surfaces somewhat unconsciously — like when she finds herself at a beer event counting the number of men versus the number of women.
She's seen the number of women involved in craft beer increase in the last 10 years and takes the count as more of a quick observation than of something to dwell on. In her experience, she's generally found the beer community to be very welcoming, spurring her curiosity instead of discriminating against it. It's the occasional situation that catches her by surprise briefly. For instance, there was the time she was told by a guy that “you don’t look like a beer drinker,” which left her a bit bewildered. Much like the boy picking on girls on the playground, there's bound to be one who hasn't figured out that both guys and girls enjoy craft beer and can even enjoy craft beer together.
By Gail Oberst
Can we expect a hop shortage in the near future, driving Oregon IBUs down and prices for your pint up?
That was certainly the buzz a few months ago, when an article in the Wall Street Journal, followed by a lemming-like response from other writers, heralded gloom and doom for “small” brewers – producers of less than 15,000 barrels per year, thus, all but about seven of Oregon’s 170 breweries. Suggesting that a hop shortage is looming, the article warned that our beloved hoppy beers would soon cost too much for anyone to drink or give way to – Baccus forbid! – low-hop beverages like lagers or lambics or even meads and ciders.
But is there truly a nationwide – possibly world- wide – shortage brought on by your intense love of hoppy beers?
Psych! No there isn’t!
In a word, no, there’s no hop shortage, according to national and local experts.
Or to be more precise, there is no shortage of hops in the real sense, as it was in 2007-2008 when – for various reasons both environmental and economic – we suffered a real shortage, making the current situation far too mild to be called a “shortage.” But without a doubt, demand for hoppy beers has changed the market and brewers would be smart to plan.
Growers are doing their best to respond to a heavy demand for aroma hops, especially Cascades, the workhorse of the IPA and other hop-centric beers, said Nancy Sites, executive director of the Oregon Hop Commission. And they are doing a great job of it. Oregon’s potential harvest this year is nearly 800 acres more than it was last year and more than 570 of those acres are strung up with Cascades, the mother of aroma hops. Centennial, Chinook, Citra, Golding, Crystal, Mt. Hood, Perle, Sterling and Willamette all saw increases in acreage this year in Oregon. If you were a brewer counting on Nugget – currently Oregon’s largest acreage hops – you might be looking at a tight market, as acreage fell by just under 300 as demand shifts to other types. But replacement hops were plentiful. And Washington, which has 29,021 acres in hops this year (to Oregon’s has 5,559), has grown by nearly 2,000 acres since last year. “Shortage” is a word you would use when hop acreage falls from 17,000 acres to 5,700 acres, as it did in 1954. Even Idaho, with its 3,812 acres of hops, is up by more than 400 acres this year. Hardly the numbers of shortages, points out Chris Swersey of the Brewers Association.
So where does the Wall Street Journal get its idea that there’s a “shortage” of hops?
The word is sometimes used when prices rise, which they are apt to do as demand and values increase. And there has been a drop in the number of acres devoted to bittering or alpha acid hops – Galena, Nugget, Millenium — as brewers replace them with the aroma hops – Cascades and Centennials. And, as large brewers follow the consumer demand for aroma hops, those may quickly disappear from the open market, making contracts even more important for the small brewery.
The Job’s Not Done Until the Paperwork Is...
Perhaps those local brewers who chose not to enter into contracts or those newer brewers who haven’t established relationships with hop growers and distributors may find themselves short in some cases, Swersey said. More than 90 percent of Brewers Association members maintain contracts for hops, guaranteeing them product and reducing the chance of “shortages.” Many brewers establish hop contracts long before they even brew their first professional beers. These agreements are safeguards for big and small breweries, Swersey added.
In Oregon, some varieties are in short supply, but these are mostly privately licensed varieties where owners are maintaining higher prices to avoid oversupply, Sites said.
Sites said there’s reason to believe aroma hop acreage, as opposed to bittering hops, will continue to expand in 2015. “We are also trying to get a handle on how many acres are being grown in other parts of the U.S., and are still working on surveying those growers,” she said.
Doubtless, she said, the market is tight. “It sounds like ‘spot market’ hops for some varieties are a little harder to find and the price is higher right now because there aren’t a lot of ‘extras’ out there that are not spoken for in the form of contracts. Many brewers now are contracting for their hops two to three years out to ensure they get the amount and varieties that they need. Brewers that do contract usually end up paying a little less than brewers that wait to buy on the spot market,” she said.
But enough shop talk, what about my beer?
Whether rising hop prices will impact the price of your beer will depend on what kind of a business your brewery owner is running. Rogue brewers without contracts (not the brewery, which smartly grows its own hops), might find themselves paying a lot for hops and passing the cost on to you.
But, more than likely, your brewer is like Jamie Floyd of Ninkasi or Irene Firmat of Full Sail, who stay in touch by visiting Sodbuster Farms and other growers each year with a busload of curious employees and beer drinkers. Or your brewery is like McMenamins, whose team of hopped-up brewers actually makes a tradition of picking up their fresh hops straight from the grower, called “The Running of the Hops,” aimed at getting the freshest hops to the brewhouse on the same day they are stripped from the bines.
Stuff like that is unlikely to happen anywhere near Wall Street.
Which might explain some of the disconnect (I’m being kind) between Wall Street and Beervana. Let’s just say they don’t know chit about where beer comes from. But now you do. It really is a Northwest thing.
Here’s Gail’s Wall Street hint for the day: Hops, my boy. Invest in hops. And by that I mean begin your investment by accumulating those delicious resins in your belly. If there’s going to be a hop shortage, it’s up to you, Oregon drinker, to contribute to it.
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.