Hop farming and the aromatic side of beer
The hop harvest is underway in Oregon. While visitors to a hop farm were delighting in the aroma, the hop farmers said they hardly smelled a thing. (Wait for the high alpha acid varieties in the later harvest, they said. Some visitors find those hops almost painfully pungent.) Wish our video of the visit shared the smells!
Last weekend we (“we” being not just the editorial plural, but Beer By BART’s Gail and Steve) went to Oregon for a Beer Bloggers Conference. One highlight was a trip to a hop farm, not far from Portland in the nearby Willamette valley. We got to see Tettnang hops, a delicate “noble” variety originally from Germany, as they were mechanically picked and dried. Our video shows part of the special tour of Goschie Farms given by one of the neighboring hop farmers before an outdoor dinner at the hop farm.
Hops attract more than just beer geeks. If you were an aphid, where else would you want to live? So pesticides are used for professional hop cultivation in most areas. Growing certified organic hops can be labor-intensive and expensive. The yield per acre ends to be lower. The hops will cost more.
Organic beers had been given an exemption for hops in the Organic labeling law, along with a few other food ingredients. Brewers are allowed to use non-organic hops without noting that fact. If beers use 100% organic hops, that can be a voluntary addition to the label. This is about to change, at the end of 2012. Beer brewed after December 2012 will have to have hops that are certified organic in their production in order to be called certified organic beer The total amount of organic hops produced in the next harvest, a year from now, will be very important to organic brewers. For example, local organic brewers such as Bison and Thirsty Bear will compete for these hops with larger players. If we buy organic beers, we will support more acres being farmed without heavy petrochemicals, but until then a fascinating competition will play out.
What about Goschie farms? As this interview says, they are certified Salmon Safe for their agricultural runoff practices, a worthy endeavor. They have produced some organic hops, but the transition is gradual, and natural conditions are part of the process. For example, this uncharacteristically cool year on the West Coast did not bring the hot temperatures that help control aphids naturally.
Along with the organic beer movement, another industry pressure on hop farmers comes with changes in the AB-Inbev hop buying patterns. The giant brewing company will now use more hop oils and extracts and is no longer buying some hops, including the Willamette hop variety, grown for them under contract and providing stability to the farms for decades. Healthy hop plants can last for about 30 years, so ripping them out and planting another variety is not just a significant cost, but inherently wasteful and disruptive to the land. However, shifts in demand are part of the reality of modern brewing and farming.
The Beer Bloggers Conference itself was a good recreational and educational weekend, produced by a group which has also done wine bloggers events. This was their third beer bloggers conference, and it felt slightly smaller than a critical mass for a conference, but members of the burgeoning Oregon beer community certainly made up for that. (Notably, the second one had been in England, and was quite popular. If anybody is interested, this is the group that plans to do it again!)
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