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Outdated carpeting aside, the next challenge came years later when Pierce decided to turn an adjacent hay field into a hospitable environment for hops.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 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.
By Patty Mamula
Like all good things, developing a new hop variety takes time — lots of time — years, more than 10, usually. From the initial cross by plant breeders to the final public release, there are hundreds of research gauntlets to run.
TriplePearl, the newest aroma hop released by the USDA in 2012, was an exception. Its accelerated release only took six years.
John Henning, research plant geneticist and OSU crop and soil scientist, heads up the USDA- Agricultural Research Service’s hop program in Corvallis. Part of his work involves sequencing the hop genome and identifying molecular markers that can be used in selection.
“These markers allow us to better understand the biology of disease resistance, insect resistance, how different aroma compounds are made, yield and brewing characteristics,” said Henning. “They also can be used in a traditional breeding program to accelerate the rate of variety development and improve the accuracy of selection.”
And that’s what happened with TriplePearl. Henning said that the USDA-ARS hop research program receives federal funds and grant dollars from the Hop Research Council. The council funds research for disease resistance, integrated pest management, chemistry analysis, brewing studies, pesticide usage and emerging pesticides.
“It’s been a great relationship; it provides us researchers with clear direction,” said Henning. TriplePearl is one of several aroma hops being developed in response to specific needs expressed by the Hop Research Council. They have been high yielding, relatively disease free and of good brewing quality, based on pilot brewing. TriplePearl is unique because it’s seedless. Brewers wanted a seedless hop because the seeds only add weight, not taste, to the hop cone, and they buy hops based on the weight of the dry cone. “Brewers only want ingredients that add flavor,” said Henning.
TriplePearl, as its name implies, has three desirable traits:
-It produces NO viable seeds
-It grows easily, like a weed, and can be very high yielding
-The flavor is fruity with citrus notes, according to brewing comments. It’s very favorable for the development of ales and it does well in a lager, which is not always the case.
Although TriplePearl was released in 2012, Henning expects the first large harvest will be in the fall of 2015.
The other aroma hop varieties will be released piecemeal, depending on the level of interest and when brewers desire to use them on a regular basis. “We’ll continue to use them in on-farm operations and pilot brewing by Miller-Coors and AB InBev and brewers like Sierra Nevada.
Members of the Hop Research Council include major domestic and international brewers, craft brewers, hop merchants and three state Hop Commissions for Oregon, Washington and Idaho. Domestic brewer AB InBev is interested in a replacement for the Willamette hop. They want one that’s more disease resistant and higher yielding.
When developing hop varieties for major brewers it’s crucial that the hop maintains the same flavor year after year. “It’s difficult to get something that’s just like a Willamette,” said Henning.
Miller-Coors is also interested in specific hop breeding profiles, but their goals have been more flavor related.
Hop research is not focused entirely on aroma hops. Bittering or super alpha hops are also being developed.
Hop research has a long history going back to the 1930s. “The USDA breeding program has been here since the 1950s,” said Henning.
The Corvallis 14-acre research plots contain 150 different varieties from around the world and is primarily used for making crosses and breeding.
Because of the ever-present budget issues and a desire to work more closely with growers, Henning instituted a grower crop breeding program. The specific growers who are tending these research trials are Paul Fobert in Hubbard, Jeff Butch in Mt. Angel, Fred Geschwell in Woodburn and Brulotte Farms in Toppenish, Washington.
“Our program focuses on regional hop development for the Pacific Northwest.” The Northwest has traditionally been the best region of the country for growing hops in terms of disease resistance and soil and climate.
But, other areas are migrating back to growing hops, like Michigan, Wisconsin and New York, said Henning. All three grew hops a century ago but got out of it because of disease problems. The increase in craft brewing has led to an increased interest in growing your own.
PUBLIC or PRIVATE
Any USDA hop that is released is public, and, once sold, the USDA no longer has any say in how those are handled. Until the 1990s public hops were the only ones available.
The USDA works with Hop Commissions to sponsor nursery plots. Roots are sold to growers or evenly distributed to growers.
Publicly-developed varieties of hops can be trademarked and given a different name. Rogue has done that with five or six varieties.
“Private hops are no different from what’s happening with other crops,” said Henning.
Private hops are developed by a company and in order to regain costs for development, the companies maintain control of distribution and charge a royalty on it. Those same companies will take the responsibility of selling the hop grown by a hop grower. Private companies will pay hop growers to grow their hop and keeps a portion of the payment as a royalty for the right to grow it.
Private companies have their own marketing choices and control.
With public hops, there is much less marketing. Hop Growers of America and Hop Commissions do some marketing of publicly developed varieties.
“All of the hop breeders work closely together,” said Henning. The hop industry is so small, we all have to work together.”
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.