I visited my first oast in 2011 at Hop & Brew School in Yakima, Washington during the hop harvest. With the temperature breaking 130 and the humid air made more lethargic by sleepy vapors, I saw a football field-sized, three-foot-deep bed of freshly de-bined hops and thought, What a wonderful world. The extensive piece I wrote about the action packed two-day experience was published in the newsletter of the Cascade Brewers Society and read by approximately twelve people.
Seven years later, the process is no less beguiling; nor has it changed much. This year, I toured Crosby Hop Farm’s fields and processing plant with my New School crew Ezra (founder) and Michael Perozzo (southern WA contributor). I took some video that smoky morning, and spliced together a quick tutorial on the process (I did the music too!):
Those are the basic maneuvers performed at any hop farm. What the video fails to capture is the momentum of history, the pace of information, and the contiguity that hop farmers have with the craft beer world.
Before the early 00’s, hop farmers were dealing with a just few people who represented giant brewing entities with no need for creativity. At the same time, hop breeders were at the precipice of the future, with Simcoe and Amarillo hops achieving acreage for the several hundred craft breweries (microbreweries we called ’em then, kids) that made beer with flavor and adventurousness. Yes, Cascade had been a hit long before, but that was low wave on a shallow shoreline compared to what was about to crash on the sands of our sensory glands.
The evolution of craft beer in the 21st century parallels that of social media and global information sharing. With the communities that flourished on the internet, including the beer rating sites Beer Advocate and RateBeer, beer drinkers had a “virtual pub” in which to discuss and rave about their favorites. The IPA buzzword “IBU” and now-patented hop varieties, with their “citrusy” and “dank” aromas, quickly rose in the ranks of the collectively inebriated unconscious. There was demand, craft brewers listened hard, and in turn put demand on hop growers for more aroma varieties.
Over the decades of commercial hop growth and brewers contracting in hop futures, there has always been a shifting balance of aroma and bittering hop acreage. Farmers must be brutally honest with their plants to be successful, which means tearing out rows to replace them with varieties that, ideally, will be very popular in two years. Despite the Internet, hops don’t grow any faster.
Fast forward a little bit, to around 2008. Although fresh hop beers were not entirely new, their popularity had grown quite a bit. This meant that more brewers were getting directly in touch, going to the fields, and trading information with hop growers.
Crosby Hop Farm has taken a leading edge on this front. Blake Crosby, a 5th generation hop farmer, sunk his teeth into the business several years ago. Rather than just sell hops to wholesale brokers, he guided the farm through a renaissance that would incorporate growing, processing, importing, and direct sales and marketing into an all-hops-everything juggernaut in the Willamette Valley.
I covered the early season process and a bit about Crosby in an article for the Oregon Beer Growler earlier this year. But this tour, just when the harvest was winding up to go full bore, made it clear that the relationships that hop growers like Crosby and Goschie farms have with brewers and drinkers is another seam strengthening the fabric of craft beer.
Since Crosby integrated other aspects of the hop business, it’s had to build a strong marketing team and develop language that diverges from the agronomic lingo you’d hear at a Hop Growers of America meeting. Now, the story of the farm becomes part of its terroir. Its Salmon Safe certification isn’t just for the land, it’s part of the salesperson’s toolbox. Welcome to the 21st century, hops!
Though marketing is never a measure of quality in any product, closing the gap between producer and consumer does enhance the information relay. Does a beer drinker need to know the hop grower? Obviously not, the same way we don’t need to know our chicken farmer. But it sure does help make informed decisions. And really, hops are far outside of the scope of scrutiny for the ethically-minded consumer. The Salmon Safe designation is, as far as I can tell, the best compromise between conventional and organic pest and fungus management. Every hop grower I’ve spoken with says that the time and effort to get a much lower yield using organic practices is hardly worth it on any sort of production scale. That’s to be taken with a grain of salt, as certain hops do better in different climates and can be successfully grown organically; those are not the hops people are looking for in an IPA, though. The point: if you, the consumer, prefer drinking organic beer, you have the ability to contact the producers of organic ingredients and find out who uses them.
As we roll into fresh hop season, complete with the crazy array of fresh hop festivals in the region, it’s worth appreciating the incredible amount of hard work at hop farms between August and October. A lot of the manual labor is done by temporary workers, many of whom are Latino men and women. Many farms have on-site labs. Crosby has a pelletizer as well, and a warehouse of hops to manage and rotate through. Hops go from the field to a ready-to-brew format in just a couple days, which is part of what makes the harvest so exciting; in the coming months, as breweries start brewing with their 2018 hops, we’ll start tasting the effect of this year’s weather on the first crop of Amarillo grown on Crosby soil.