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.