Beer without hops is like wine without grapes. Sure, you also need yeast, water and malted grains, but hops provide that quintessential bitterness and floral aroma, while also ensuring the beer’s essence as it ages.
Brewers have relied on hops as preservatives since the 14th century, and for the past 150 years, U.S. hops were almost exclusively grown in the Pacific Northwest. But just as craft breweries have boomed from coast to coast, homegrown hops are starting to sprout up all over the country.
How Hops Grow
Hops aren’t a vine – they’re a “bine,” a vine-like stem with tiny hooks, but no tendrils, explains Tom Ladueman of Old Dominion Hops Co-op in Virginia. “Planting and stringing is labor intensive work in all hop yards,” he says. The initial planting occurs in hilled rows using trellises. Brewers only uses the unfertilized female cones, so growers propagate hops with rhizomes instead of seeds.
After planting, a hop yard typically produces for about 10 to 12 years, as hops are perennials. Every spring, workers string twine between the trellis wire and edge of each crown, securing a few strong bines to the string while discarding smaller bines. They then train the plant by wrapping hop shoots in a clockwise direction around the twine, repeating this a couple of times each spring until each twine supports enough shoots.
“Planting, stringing and trellises are similar all over,” Laudeman says. “Harvest is the big difference between small and large growers.”
During the fall harvest in Virginia and other small operations, volunteer hop heads cut down the bines and twine, picking each hop cone by hand. That’s not the case at large hops farms in the Pacific Northwest, where major hop merchant companies built their processing facilities decades ago. Picking machines, which can pick eight acres of hops in 10 hours, strip the hops from the vine, clean away the leaves and other debris, and send the cleaned cones by conveyor belt to hop kilns. Here, they are dried, cooled and compressed into 200-pound bales before inspection and cold storage warehouses.
By contrast, many smaller growers skip the drying, kilning and baling process, delivering fresh hops to brewers within 24 hours of harvest. But Laudeman admits that this practice, while perfect for local breweries, isn’t in the same league as large-scale operations. “Hops growing is taking off in our area,” he says, “but all of us together are smaller than a single hop yard out west.”
Despite their current status as kingpins of the hops industry, Oregon and Washington weren’t the first states to grow hops. America’s love of homebrew can be traced back to the mid-1600s, when Massachusetts colonists first harvested hops using seeds imported from England. By that time, the cone-shaped flower of the hops plant had long overtaken an herb mixture called gruit as the bittering agent of choice.
New England farmers harvested the first commercial crop of hops in 1791. Over the next 50 years, production took off in New York, where an annual harvest totaled more than three million tons by the mid-1850s. But as settlers moved westward, so did the hops industry.
Rise of a Hops Haven
When disease devastated the Northeast’s hops industry, the Pacific Northwest was poised to take over. By the early 1900s, says Ann George of the Hop Growers of America, Oregon and Washington were commercially producing hops in substantial quantities, thanks to the dry climate, low humidity and good soil that allows the crop to thrive.
However, the most important aspect to a successful hops crop is latitude, thanks to the longer day length. “If you look at the major hop producing regions around the globe,” George says, “you will see that they tend to concentrate near the 45th parallel.” As a result, the other top hop countries include Germany, the Czech Republic and China.
With its bountiful hops crops, even Prohibition didn’t hurt the Pacific Northwest, thanks to easily accessible ports on the West Coast, which allowed growers to export to other countries. Meanwhile, the ban on booze and drop in demand coincided with growers battling disease in New York and other nearby states. “As New England production was removed, it allowed the industry on the West Coast to continue to cater to foreign markets, and capture the growth after Prohibition was repealed,” George explains.
And so began the regional monopoly on commercial hops. The harvest process transitioned from handpicking to those motorized portable machines, and Washington’s Yakima Valley became the hub, at its peak accounting for 70 percent of U.S. hops totals.
A Changing Industry
Today, most commercial hops are still grown in Washington, Oregon and Idaho, where the average farm spans 500 acres. But in recent years, smaller hop yards have popped up in Michigan, New York, Colorado and other areas, catering to regional breweries that favor organics, local ingredients, and undried hops used in seasonal fresh-hop ales.
“If the smaller growers can cater to a niche market and benefit from a premium price for their efforts, while avoiding transportation costs to processing facilities in the Pacific Northwest, it allows them a much improved opportunity to thrive,” George says.
She calls the phenomenon of microbreweries and homebrewing a game-changer. “Although this segment of the brewing industry still contributes a fairly small portion of the annual beer volume, they use substantially more hops, which has resulted in a dramatic impact on the U.S. hop market,” she says.
For example, for decades, the U.S. produced high alpha hops, which are extracted for alpha acid. Now, half of the hops grown in the U.S. are aroma hops, which have a lower percentage of alpha acid percentage and an oil profile, as the name indicates, known for their aroma.
Of course, hops growers wouldn’t be anywhere if brewers didn’t embrace these new trends.
“We’re lucky that all of our local brewers have enough initiative to modify their brewing practice to use wet, whole cone, fresh hops instead of dried, pelletized hops,” Laudeman says. “The resulting beer is very smooth, complex and fantastically satisfying.”