In the late 1800s, Alexander Seavey and his sons planted hops on what is now Buford Park and Mount Pisgah between the Middle and Coast forks of the Willamette River. Hops were the primary crop grown then, as the Willamette Valley became the biggest hop growing region in the country, and exported hops all over the world. The original variety cultivated was Cluster (thought to be a hybrid of imported and native cultivars), though more varieties, such as English-bred Northern Brewer, trickled in as the industry matured.
The Seavey family operated hop farms up and down the Willamette Valley until just after World War II, even through Prohibition; European agriculture was heavily damaged during World War I, but brewers still needed hops. During that time, they also planted orchards of plum, cherries, hawthorn, and apple. The family’s legacy is now in name: Seavey Loop Road connects Eugene and Springfield to Buford Park; it is still mostly farmland.
In 2012, some Cluster hops were found growing wild in Buford Park. Because they are technically an invasive, the native garden nursery there was not allowed to propagate the plants. Rhizomes were given to Agrarian Ales, where they now grow on an artfully conceived “hop dome” near the brewery. Similarly, the apple and hawthorn trees that have survived are not considered native. However, they have been put to use by WildCraft Cider Works, which has produced two vintages of Pisgah Heritage Cider using only fruit from that orchard.
On June 23, 2018 during Oregon Cider Week, the park held its first Pisgah Heritage Festival. Visitors could peruse the native plant garden, meet with local nonprofits involved in preserving the environment around the park, and enjoy beer and cider from Agrarian Ales and WildCraft. A feature of the festival was a talk about the hops and orchard, led by Friends of Buford Park & Mount Pisgah’s Stewardship Director Jason Blazar, with WildCraft founder Sean Kelly and Ben Tilley, co-founder of Agrarian Ales.
Blazar started the talk with some history about the crops, and noted that not all invasives are pests. “We can fight plants, or recognize that some plants have intrinsic value,” he said, offering up that some invasive species can be used and managed for value-added efficiency. The Cluster “hop refugees” growing at Agrarian Ales are an example of this.
Tilley described the Cluster hop cones as having an “incredible amount of lupulin,” like a bee’s pollen packet that virtually explodes from the flower as it matures. That the hops survived in the wild for so long has made them quite resilient, and resistant to the mildews and other diseases that plague hops in the Willamette Valley. Tilley also mentioned that an old farmer from Detering Orchards, near Agrarian Ales, told him that hops were grown decades ago on the very spot where Agrarian’s grow now. Back then, women and children worked the harvest, and the kids didn’t go to school until all the hops were picked.
Agrarian brewer Nathan Tilley worked with Blazar to develop the recipe for the beer served at the event, Fog on the Mountain. It is a refreshing, cloudy pale ale that was dry-hopped with the Cluster during fermentation. Both 2016 and 2017 harvests were used in the brew. Notes of peppery farmhouse yeast add a zingy zest to the hops, which display a bit of the Cluster’s notorious cattiness along with subtle guava.
Though the hops are grown at Agrarian, the bines are transported to Buford Park for a ceremonial hop picking party. Last year’s fires caused concern that the hops would impart a smoky flavor to the beer, but that seems not to be the case; at least not yet, according to Kelly.
WildCraft served the 2016 and 2017 vintages of Pisgah Heritage Cider. Both are classically English in presentation: very dry, with a strong tannic presence. The 2016 had dropped clear, evincing a bright, candy-like acidity. The 2017, which I sipped during the talk, was only packaged two days before, and displayed a brusque, burlap, rustic tannin; a different sort of apple presence that begged to be paired with cheese and charcuterie. With time, it too will clear up and mellow, displaying its true terroir. “Every profile-landscape takes time to evolve. Things need to settle and relax.” Kelly told me after the talk that cider, like wine, needs six to nine months before its sense of place comes to the fore; it could be that those 2017 hops, in the right conditions, could eventually show some smoke.
Kelly is an eloquent speaker, even off the cuff. He exists in a biologically dynamic mindset that is pragmatically naturalistic, humanitarian in the earthiest sense. That means he moves at a different pace, and seems to simultaneously cultivate and harvest from his surroundings, be they an orchard or a hip-hop show.
He gave an overview of apple fermentation. “Apples encapsulate the yeast of the spring,” quite literally, he said. The fruit grows around the flower, rather than from the stem. Notice that the core of an apple has hollow space compared to a pear. Kelly says this is where the yeast is preserved. The skin of an apple also carries yeast, but it can be removed, even bleached away, and the fruit will still naturally ferment.
The history of homestead orchards could be (and should be, and maybe is) a book. Kelly spoke about the purpose of the thousands of acres of apples planted over 100 years ago. They certainly weren’t for apple pie; they were for fermenting into cider to be drunk, served still from a cask, or for distilling into fuel for farm machinery. The latter practice was outlawed, and Kelly waxed a bit political: “Whether or not I agree with how America has gone its course is a different thing.” The prohibition of home distillation requires farmers to rely on commercial fuel, which supersedes a closed-system ecology. Again– could/should/might be a book.
Here, Blazar interjected with some history of the land. Elijah Bristow, the Virginian who became the first white person to settle in Lane County, put his stake in Pleasant Hill, and described Mount Pisgah as “the promised land,” according to Blazar. At that point, the history of the landscape changed forever. Bristow and future settlers brought not only disease that killed the original settlers, the Calapooya tribe, but also the endemic penchant to manage the land a certain way. Native plants weren’t given a second thought as agriculture came to the oak-spotted prairie.
Now, Friends of Buford Park & Mount Pisgah work with what they’ve got, and have indeed improved the abundance of native species. Even still, blackberries, hawthorn, Scotch broom, and other invasives are difficult or impossible to eradicate. Again, Blazar, who has been with the nonprofit for a long time, cited a progressive model of remediation. “As we look forward, we have to learn from these experiences. Not wage war on weeds, but look at the benefits they provide for us as a community.” The benefits can be intangible, as this educational talk proved, or tangible to the point of consumable, as the cider and beer act as anthropological artifacts that connect the people that drink them with the origin and history of the ingredients.