The heart of craft brewing is hops. That’s why Jim Solberg and Roger Worthington started Indie Hops.
They focus on supplying craft brewers with quality Oregon hops and on developing new varieties for the commercial market.
“We would love to have some new and exciting hops with different flavors. With so many beer styles, brewers need hops with correspondingly different qualities,” said Solberg.
For the research and development, Indie Hops is collaborating with OSU scientists, led by Shaun Townsend. Recently, they finished evaluating trial hops from 2013 and selected five for advanced testing. While 2016 would be the earliest any might be available commercially; they plan many pilot brews between now and then. (See story Page 9).
For the supply side of the business, Indie Hops has a facility in Hubbard, close to the hop fields, for milling hop pellets, packaging and cold storage.
In 2008, when Solberg and Worthington started tossing ideas around, they felt there was a broad opportunity in Oregon hops. Solberg’s visit to a large hop ranch in Yakima was on his mind when he met Worthington, who was looking for investment possibilities, at a Portland pub.
Solberg knew the Willamette Valley was widely considered the best place to grow flavorful aroma hops. A longtime home brewer, he had just seen how the difference in climate between Oregon and Eastern Washington shows up in the hops.
That was the same year InBev bought Anheuser and demand for Oregon hops dried up. Craft brewers who had long been content to follow behind the large domestic breweries and pick up the leftover hops were scrambling. Growers needed new business. And, the boutique Portland-born brewpubs had exploded into a nationwide craft brewing industry with Oregon’s aroma hops at its center.
“We realized that we didn’t need to be hop experts,” said Solberg. “We had experienced farmers, scientists and brewers.”
And, Matt Sage . . . their brewery liaison. Sage was a brewer at Bridgeport from 1984 to 1990, then after working at local wineries, returned to Bridgeport and joined Indie Hops in 2010.
That same year they opened the Hubbard facility and their first pellets were from the 2009 hop crop. “We weren’t compelled to have tremendous output, so we were able to do some different things. Our process does a better job of preserving the natural character of the hop,” said Solberg.
Nearly all brewers, 90 to 95 percent, are using pel- letized hops, he said. “Besides quality, one of our pri- mary benefits for brewers is to even out production.”
Few breweries are big enough to have long-term contracts with growers. Solberg put the number of craft breweries at 2,000 but the Brewers Association puts it over 3,000. The 50 or so hop growers are not set up to deal with that many individual entities.
Most breweries sign a contract for a year and pay for the hops as they are shipped. Indie Hops holds them in cold storage at the optimum temperature of 28 degrees.
Sage said, “We source our hops with a few farmers. Our taking the risk helps ensure the hops will be there for brewers who only contract one year at a time.”
Smaller brewpubs bring in hops every three weeks or so, said Solberg. “We arrange freight and ship, mostly to the West Coast, Colorado and the Great Lakes.”
Our advantages are quality pellets, cold storage, good relationships with hop growers here like Goschie and Coleman Farms and good response from brewers, said Solberg.
Right now, Indie Hops sells predominately USDA public varieties of hops.
But, their program with OSU is focused on new aroma hops with excellent brewing qualities. Once a hop makes it out of the trial stage and into advanced development and finally to commercial production, a ten-year process at best, Oregon State will be the owner, but it will be a private hop. Solberg said they plan to charge a small royalty that will fund continued research. The hops will be available to anyone who wants to grow them.
“Of course, IPA is a big beer style. There’s always a new one out that people are excited about. We’d love to get a hop for IPA that’s lower in bitterness, alpha acids,” said Solberg.
“We would like some new varieties that are a step forward in pest and disease resistance. Then hop farms can grow them with fewer inputs and have a stable product,” said Solberg.
Another beneficial trait would be a hop that could be harvested earlier to help spread out the harvest days from August 1 to September 15 instead of the traditional non-stop three weeks from late August to early September.
While both Solberg and Worthington had professional white collar careers at Nike and at a law firm, respectively, their hands-on experience and passion for craft brewing launched not one but two new Oregon companies. Worthington became so interested in craft brewing he started his own in 2012—Worthy Brewing in Bend.