By Gail Oberst
Bruce Wolf and his younger brother Derek operate Willamette Hops in an old barn just a few yards from the house where they were both raised. In fields surrounding the office near St. Paul, hop vines hunker in muddy dormancy, waiting for spring.
The company’s plain surroundings mask the rapidly-growing business the brothers have built to supply local and international hops to Oregon brewers.
“We don’t grow the hops,” Bruce explains. “But we would bleed green, if you cut us.”
The Wolfs are distributors, working with Haas International and local growers, to provide pelletized and whole-leaf hops to brewers.
The Wolf brothers have deep roots in St. Paul’s hop culture. They are related by blood or by marriage to some of Oregon’s longest hop growers -- Colemans, Weathers, Davidsons and others are all blood or in-laws. Bruce grew up with his wife, Emily Davidson, whose family has been farming hops in the area for five generations. Their grandparents had worked together. The couple had their first baby, Madelyn Marie, Dec. 8.
“I grew up on a hop farm, working next to my dad,” Bruce said.
Had the hop market not taken a nosedive in the 90s, Bruce and his dad, James, might still be farming. The brothers’ great-grandfather bought the land, cleared it and planted hops in the days when the flowers were picked by hand. In 1986, James Wolf was named Young Farmer of the Year by the Woodburn Chamber of Commerce for his innovations in hop-picking. At the time, James Wolf was farming the hops his father, Philip, had farmed. In 1972, father and son bought the first p-right baling system in Oregon and Washington.
“By the time my dad was 19 years old, he was raising his own hops. He had his own fields,” Bruce said. His dad’s first hop variety? Columbia, said Bruce.
In 1999, after a 12-year downturn in the hops market, the Wolf family quit farming hops. When he was old enough, Bruce worked at relatives’ farms. About six years ago, he began working with his grandpa selling hop rhizomes online.
“About 2009 or 2010, we were getting hit with requests for whole hops and pellets,” Bruce said. The light bulb went off. In 2009, he registered his company, Willamette Valley Hops, and brought his brother in to the company. “Derek has been working with me shoulder to shoulder the whole time,” Bruce said.
Although many Oregon hop growers will sell small amounts directly to the brewer, most of the world’s hop growers set minimum amounts that can be purchased, which edges many small breweries out of specialty markets. Willamette Valley Hops – as do larger dealers – gathers enough orders from clients to create minimum orders. Willamette Valley Hops specializes in personal service. “We’ve even hand-delivered fresh hops to breweries,” said Bruce. Today Willamette Valley Hops has five outside sales representatives, including this month’s cover model and leprechaun, Dave Fleming.
Last year, the company’s only other full-time employee, Maureen, organized a fresh hop festival in St. Paul, donating the proceeds to local schools. This year, they’ll do the same.
What’s in the future?
“More babies, maybe three or four,” said Bruce. But on the business side, he sees expanding connections to local growers and brewers.
“I see nothing but growth for the next five to ten years,” he said.
Willamette Valley Hops
( a ) 18704 French Prairie Rd. N.E., St. Paul
( p ) 503-633-HOPS (4677)
Owners: Bruce and Derek Wolf
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.