By mid-August, there’s no rest for workers at hop farms across North America. Through the middle of September, the farmers who grow beer’s signature ingredient keep a watchful eye to ensure their crop is correctly harvested and readied for pints. And yet, the other 11 months of the year are just as busy.
There are fields to maintain and manage. Hops need to be processed into pellets, which are then packaged and sold to breweries. Breeders must create and run sensory trials on new varieties in hopes they will become the next big thing among brewers and beer drinkers.
“Hops in America and around the world are in a much better and [more] exciting place than they’ve ever been,” says Gayle Goschie, vice president of hops and wine grapes at Goschie Farms in Silverton, Oregon. Her family farm is in its 117th harvest. It will process 425 acres of hops this season. “I think about my grandparents starting our business, and my parents,” she says.
“Through their time on the farm, my grandparents had no to little idea of where their hops were going. My parents were in the same situation. Now, my family can go to a grocery store and see beers and realize that our hops are in it. It’s just a heck of a lot of fun.”
Hops are the flower of the Humulus lupulus plant, a perennial crop that grows vertically on bines. It thrives in climates with moist, hot summers. This typically means northern U.S. states; European countries like the Czech Republic, Germany and the United Kingdom; and Australia, New Zealand and South Africa in the southern hemisphere.
The 2020 hop crop in the U.S. dropped by just over 7% from the previous year, according to the Hop Growers of America, a trade group. Over the last nine years, the group claims that country’s hop acreage has increased 106%, to 61,130 acres. From the earliest days of America’s beer renaissance, hops have been front and center.
In 1980, Sierra Nevada Brewing Company’s pale ale, largely credited with exposing beer lovers to hops, burst on the scene with a score of 38 on the International Bittering Units (IBU) scale, which measures the quantity of various bitter compounds in a beer. By comparison, most American light lagers were in the single digits of the scale, which has no upper limit. Consumers reacted positively, and as more small breweries opened, the desire for more hop flavors grew.
“That mindset to feature hops in the taste and flavor and aromas of beers turned the whole thing around for us,” says Steve Carpenter, chief supply chain officer for Yakima Chief, a network of hop farms.
The explosive growth of craft breweries in the country, now currently around 9,000, has brought stability to the hop-growing industry. Roughly 104.8 million pounds of hops were harvested last year. Breeding programs have also brought new life and interest into the industry. Two major examples are Citra, released in 2008, and Mosaic, released in 2012.
They are now among the most heavily strung for harvest hops in Idaho, Washington and Oregon, the country’s three largest hop-producing states. Most hop breeders continue to release a few new varieties each year, in the hopes of finding the next big one.
“My first job, we’d put .21 pounds of hops per barrel into a beer… Now with craft breweries, we’re seeing five or six pounds per barrel, sometimes more. These hops are on the label of a beer.” —Larry Sidor of Crux Fermentation Project and Hop Quality Group
These tout aromas and flavors of all types, from coconut and cedar to passion fruit, strawberry, cayenne and orange zest. The aim is to capture the attention of brewers as well as to find commercial success. While bitterness is still important, consumer palates have shifted, and it’s not such a focus.
Brewers, using late-addition hopping during the fermentation process, now release beers big on aroma and flavor, but without the bite. Nine years ago, there was roughly an even split between acreage devoted to hops high in alpha acids, which release bitter notes when boiled, and aroma hops, which are lower in alpha acids, according the Hop Growers of America.
In 2020, aroma varieties represented 77.8% of U.S. hops acreage, according to the group. Michael Ferguson, director of hop breeding at John I. Haas Inc. in Washington, says his program will plant between 50 and 80 new hop crosses every season, each of which yields about five to 10 pounds of hops. They’re then added to a simple India Pale Ale (IPA) recipe for evaluation. Only about 5% of those hops get a shot at a second season.
There’s good reason for hop breeders to chase the next big thing. Consumer preferences have shown that popular hops enjoy a 20-year cycle in the limelight, says Eric Desmarais, owner of CLS Farms in Moxee, Washington.
“Years zero through five, there is excitement and brewers trying it, then years five through 10 it’s about keeping it from plateauing all while brewers experimenting with it and trying to get everything out of it,” he says. “By year 10, it’s understood, people love it, and it takes off. It enjoys a good nine-year run and by year 20, it begins to fade a bit.”
Two of the country’s most popular hops, Simcoe and Amarillo, are around that two-decade mark. While still popular and responsible for bringing bold citrus, berry and stone fruit aromas to beer, they may be overlooked by consumers in search of new or rare brews.
Breeders have exclusive rights to their hops, and a popular breed can be lucrative for the companies, as well as the licensed farms where they’re grown.
Most start off as a number before they receive a commercial name. Newer varieties released in the last few years include Idaho 7, Loral, Talus, Sabro and Ekuanot. While there’s a focus on craft breweries, hop growers don’t ignore the behemoths like Anheuser-Busch InBev, Heineken and Molson Coors.
They buy up hops like mad, as their alpha acids are necessary to maintain recipes. Companies that try to unlock unique flavors and aromas understand that beer lovers are demanding.
Carpenter of Yakima Chief says his company always looks for the “mythical combination of 20/20 hops,” which is a crop with 20% alpha acids that can deliver 20 bales per acre.
“No one has gotten there yet, but it is something that could give sustainability at the grower level and cost savings to the bigger customers that rely on alpha acids for bittering,” he says.
Breeders also look to the future and factor in climate change when considering new varieties. Carpenter says that sustainability is important. The ideal is a crop that reduces carbon and water footprints, while offering drought resistance and the potential of high yields.
Hop farmers and brewers have a special relationship. Goschie says she can see the excitement and creativity on the faces of brewers who visit the farm during hop harvest. In the past, hop brokers would come and buy for the large brewing companies, who were mostly interested in hop’s alpha acids. Brokers still exist today, but brewers can now interact with farmers like never before.
In a nod to tradition, Goschie still uses a tool that dates to the 1920s that extracts small samples from bales to inspect hops visually and aromatically. Prior to Prohibition, hop farms were centered in East Coast states like New York and Vermont.
Production ramped up in the Pacific Northwest and remains dominant, but there are farms and harvests in most states.
Locally grown ingredients are part of the allure for brewers. “When we started, people around here had never seen a hop yard until we built one,” says Brian Tennis, founder of the Michigan Hop Alliance, which claims to be the largest independent hops supplier in the Midwest. “No one could point to a living memory of seeing one in Michigan. It was unusual, and [it’s] more commonplace now.”
Harvest is busy, but farms still find time for tourism. Dinners at hop farms are common, while bars and hotels light up with business from brewers who flock to the fields to rub hops in their hands. This releases a powder called lupulin that will give a sense of the characteristics the hops will impart.
As craft beer consumers grow into superfans, there’s a desire to get closer to the ingredients of their favorite beers. Crosby Hops, a fifth-generation family farm in Oregon, opened TopWire recently, a taproom that pours beers from around the country made with hops harvested on the company’s 600 acres.
The bar, in the middle of hop bines, puts beer lovers in the center of the action. None of this surprises Larry Sidor, one of the founders of Crux Fermentation Project. He also helped found the Hop Quality Group, a coalition of small brewers that has sought to improve standards among American hop growers.
“I have close to 50 years in the beer industry,” he says. “My first job, we’d put .21 pounds of hops per barrel into a beer, and for a time it went down from there. Now with craft breweries, we’re seeing five or six pounds per barrel, sometimes more. These hops are on the label of a beer. Customers are curious.”
He says much like how wine lovers flock to vineyards to see grapes before the winemaking process, hops should get similar attention. “Great grapes make great wine,” says Sidor. “Great hops make great beer.”