Last year I had the opportunity to visit Elk Mountain Farms in Bonners Ferry, Iowa. The farm is the largest hop farm in the world with over 1,700 acres of hops at any given time, and is owned by (and has always been owned by) Anheuser-Busch.
When I spoke to Ed Atkins, the general manager of the property for the past 30 years, he says that the farm is currently home to 10 commercial hop varieties and a mind-boggling 108 experimental ones.
Let that sink in: 108. Experimental. Hops.
The experimental ones are a relatively new addition to the farm since AB started buying up craft breweries. Prior to then, the farm only grew three varieties: Tettnang, Saaz, and Halleratu. If you pick up your average can of Budweiser you’ll notice it’s not a particularly hoppy beer. Three hops is all the farm needed.
At most hop farms, the hops are hand picked. Since Elk mountain does such a high volume, hiring people to handle all the picking would get a bit out of control. Instead, the farm uses these crazy custom-made hop pickers. Here’s a video of it in action:
It’s essentially a pickup truck with what looks like dump truck stuck on the front of it. Yes, that means the poor guy driving the truck part can’t see where he’s going.
With it, they drive through the fields. A device within the dump truck portion cuts the twine that the hop vine has been growing on, and then the hops get sucked into the dump truck portion where they’re somewhat sorted .
Once the truck is full, it goes to a processing plant where they’re sorted more to remove leaves and pieces of twine, and then dried out and processed into what looks like large hay bales made entirely of hops.
Elk Mountain is located along the 49th Parallel, putting it at a similar latitude as European hop farms in Bavaria, Germany. The farm is located in a remote area 10 miles from the Canadian border, which means most of the time you don’t get a cell signal and when you do it’s almost always Canadian.
During the summer, the farm gets close to 16 hours of sunlight which is perfect for growing hops, and grow them they do.
Currently, the farm’s biggest hop variety is Amarillo. Now that it’s working with more “craft-style” breweries it’s growing a lot more different types of hops. The idea is that a brewer might give a particular variety a test run in a batch or two and decide if it’s a flavor profile they enjoy and would want to use in the future. The winners might get bumped up to a larger production, and the losers might disappear.