Considering hops have been cultivated for 1,000 years, we still don’t know much about them, Shellhammer says. Future breeds could taste strongly of coconut, mango, pineapple, onion, sage, garlic, leather or tobacco. “I think you’ll find that brewers will use them like cooks use spices—as a blend,” he says.
Demand comes because craft brewers are faddy, Shellhammer says, always looking for something new. The industry embraced sour beers, barrel aging and the use of European yeast strains in recent years. He thinks boutique hops could be the next big thing.
“They’re in a business that’s more like fashion—trends and flavors and trying to stay ahead of it instead of being behind it,” he says.
The hop shortage piqued the interest of a number of big craft brewers who previously took their supply for granted. Some are actually growing their own, including Sierra Nevada, the third-largest American-owned brewery, which planted 40 acres around its massive brewhouse in Chico, Calif.
Downstate, Rogue Ales is growing seven varieties of hops in Independence. The 40-acre farm provides enough hops—standard varieties roguishly renamed “Freedom,” “Rebel” and “Liberty”—for about a third of the brewery’s needs.
“During the hop crisis we said, ‘Let’s make sure we never have to tell our brewer he can’t use as many hops as he wants because it’ll crush his spirit,’” says Brett Joyce, Rogue’s president. “And now our hops clearly have their own flavor because they have their own land. They taste like nothing else anywhere.... We call it ‘dirt-oir.’”
The idea of terroir in beer, ridiculous until very recently, is exciting to people like Shellhammer: “If you have a cabernet grown in [Napa], they have a different quality [than] a cabernet that’s grown in Sonoma. I’m certain those differences exist for hops.”
While other craft breweries are two time zones away from the farms growing their ingredients, Oregon brewers can have their pick from farms growing hops and barley in their backyard. “It could lead to some pretty cool stuff,” Shellhammer says.
There’s a big, green mess inside the tasting room at Hood
River’s Full Sail Brewing. Led by brewmaster Jamie Emmerson, a jolly
Hoosier who jumped into beer from organic chemistry, Full Sail’s brewers
are gathered around 14 hand-numbered and vacuum-packed samples of
experimental new-hop varieties.
The baggies look like pot—cannabis is a cousin to hops (read more about that here)—but smell strongly of garlic, citrus and freshly mown grass. The men rub the hops into sticky grounds then cup the mess over their noses and inhale. They finish by recording their opinions on a form.
“Oh, that one’s really nice,” says brewer Jim Kelter, inhaling deeply. “It’d do really well in a lager.”
These are Indie Hops’ competition. They’re Washington hops, sent by a new company started by the people behind two of the biggest blockbuster hop varieties of the past decade—Citra and Simcoe—one of whom is a scion of the Haas family, the world’s top hop merchant.
“I think the big brewers—the Millers, the Coors, the Buds—were always involved in this stuff,” Emmerson says. “For us it’s really nice to be included.”
In order to succeed, Indie Hops will need to win over breweries like Full Sail, the second biggest in Oregon and one of the nation’s 20 largest. The brewery is nearly equidistant from Yakima and Corvallis. The brewers are in Oregon, but as they rub and sniff, it’s clear they have no deep-seated loyalty to either side of the nearby river.
“We’re just trying to make great beer,” Emmerson says. “Washington and Oregon both have some great hops—we’ll use whatever works.”
The rub-testing is a long, sticky process, requiring two rounds of industrial-grade soap at the end. Results vary.
“Stuff that smells promising does not always turn out,” Emmerson says. “We had one that smelled like caramelized pineapple. We were really excited and put it in a batch. It ended up smelling like a boys’ locker room, musty and gross.”
Full Sail typically tests new hops only a few times a year. If Indie Hops succeeds, hands will be green and oily more often. Solberg’s ambitions include bringing a new variety to market every year, instead of every 10 years.
In the meantime, Indie Hops is looking back to heritage varieties. Just as Budweiser’s retreat from the Willamette Valley has opened up land, decades of Budweiser-funded research left a legacy.
“In that effort to copy traditional European hops, there were a bunch of hops that came out of that that generated some interest, but the craft industry wasn’t there yet,” Solberg says. “We’re going to resurrect some of those old hops.”
One is Santiam, a heritage hop from the early 1980s that has all but disappeared. When Indie Hops sent samples to brewers, it heard back from people who remember the hop fondly and from new brewers wowed by it.
Goschie Farms knows Santiam well because Gayle’s father planted the first test plot for Anheuser-Busch.
“It was a gorgeous hop—beautiful—but it ended up not storing well enough, so Anheuser-Busch dropped it,” she says.
Now the farm has a few acres of Santiam again, planted on land that used to grow the Willamette variety for Budweiser. The Goschies hope it helps them ride things out until new varieties from Indie Hops take root.
Maybe then they’ll take down Budweiser curios hanging alongside black-and-white family photos in their farm office. If the Goschies could make it through prohibition—their hops went to a prescription tonic that “tasted a lot like beer”—they expect to survive this.
In the farm office hangs a picture from the farm’s 100th anniversary party, when the Goschies set up enough chairs to seat half of Silverton under a canopy of white oak, and fed everyone sausages washed down by Bud. The Goschies invited wrinkled men who’d picked hops by hand for their grandparents to tour barns where banda music and big machinery now reign.
“We about ran the grocery store out of longneck bottles,” says Gayle Goschie. “It was a great day.”
It was also, Goschie says, the day she began to realize her farm shouldn’t exist in a vacuum.
“In so much of agriculture, the farmer doesn’t have a relationship with the people who ultimately use the product,” she says. “Now, we get to walk the fields with the brewer before harvest. It’s pretty special.”
As she talks, you can hear Goschie unhitching her wagon from the Clydesdales.
“Craft brewers are artists and they have a passion for what they’re doing that is constantly evolving,” she says. “They’re always reaching out for something new, some new twist, which is exciting.”
Hops are the flower cluster of a plant native to both Europe and North America. A relative of cannabis, they have only one commercial use, providing a flavor to beer. Beer has been fermented with various bittering herbs for 9,000 years, but hops, which double as anti-microbrials, have had the lead role for the last 1,000.
There are two big classes of hops—aroma/flavor and bittering—added at different times in the brewing process. Aroma hops are mainly used for smell and flavor while bittering hops balance out the syrupy sweetness of beer’s other ingredient, malted barley.
Aroma hops haven’t traditionally been a focus of American agriculture, says OSU’s Thomas Shellhammer.
“The big guys are hopping beer solely for bitterness, not for hoppiness—the herbal, floral, maybe a little bit spicy flavors from hops,” Shellhammer says.
American hop farms like the Goschie’s 1,000-acre spread outside Silverton, about 40 miles from Portland, began as a hedge against European blights. The Willamette Valley’s temperate climate, which mirrors traditional hop-growing regions, was an ideal place to start, producing flavorful aromatic hops like what you’ll find in Europe’s great beers. The Willamette cultivar, for example, is nearly identical to English Fuggle, the hop up front in old-timey British beers like Young’s Bitter.
In the 1940s, Oregon hops fell victim to the same mildew problems that challenged their European cousins, forcing farmers to Washington’s hotter, drier high desert.
Big, hardy Yakima Valley hops with names like “Zeus” offer bigger yields and more of the bitter alpha acids big brewers seek. Their super-acidic resins are sometimes turned into a canned extract that can be stored for years. Unfortunately, Yakima’s higher temperatures also seem to cook out the delicate flavors found in Oregon hops, says Shellhammer.
Yet Washington grows four times as many hops as Oregon and Idaho combined. Together, the Northwest produces about a quarter of the world’s total supply.
Hops are a very specialized crop. Only 30,016 acres were harvested in the U.S. last year, compared to 72 million acres of corn. Losing its entire 4,600-acre, $23 million hop industry wouldn’t exactly decimate Oregon agriculture—the state has six times as many acres of hazelnuts, for example—but it would suck for beer lovers, since everyone agrees Oregon’s aroma hops are among the world’s best.
10 Things You Didn’t Know About Beer
- The largest American-owned brewing company doesn’t sell beer in Oregon. Miller, Coors and Bud are now owned by foreign companies, which left Sam Adams on top until last year, when it was surpassed by Pennsylvania’s Yuengling. Founded in 1829, Yuengling claims to be the nation’s oldest brewery.
- Oregon doesn’t have the most breweries in the U.S. or the most breweries per capita. With 245 breweries, California has by far the most. Tiny Vermont has only 21 breweries, but the most per capita. Oregon has 121 breweries, which is third most total and second most per person.
- Beer styles go far beyond “light” and “dark.” There are 83 different styles judged at the Great American Beer Festival, including sour beers, oatmeal stouts and barrel-aged beers stored for a year in whiskey barrels before bottling.
- Beers made with herbs instead of hops are called gruits and were popular until the 1500s. They’ve seen a minor revival in recent years, partly spurred by Dogfish Head’s Midas Touch, a brew developed from an analysis of the 2,700-year-old drinking vessels found in the tomb of King Midas. Portland’s Buckman Brewing, housed inside the Green Dragon on Southeast Yamhill Street, is a leader, flavoring beers with chamomile, ginger and sweet potatoes.
- Dark beers are not “heavier” in calories than light beers. The color of beer depends on how long and hot the barley was roasted. Stouts, which use darker malts, are often lower in calories than brighter beers. Guinness, for example, is lighter than Heineken, Budweiser, Miller or Stella Artois.
- Some beer goes bad, other beer gets better with age. Mass-market lagers like Budweiser and Miller are best at their freshest. Full Sail’s Session lager, for example, is meant be consumed within 120 days, says brewmaster Jamie Emmerson. However, some high-alcohol, bottle-conditioned styles, including Imperial stouts and barley wines, can be cellared for years to allow flavors to mellow and mature. Portland’s Hair of the Dog is a leading advocate of bottle aging.
- The top-selling craft beer in the U.S. is Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. Oregon’s top offering was Widmer Hefeweizen, which ranked seventh among craft brews in 2010.
- The world’s largest beer market is China. The most popular Chinese beer—and the top-selling beer in the world—isn’t well-known Tsingtao. It’s Snow Beer. Tsingtao is China’s biggest export but a distant second domestically. The almost-clear Snow Beer is not available outside China and moved 16.5 billion pints in 2010, twice as much as Bud Light, which is second worldwide.
- The most popular imported beer in the U.S. is Corona. Heineken holds second place, followed by Modelo Especial and Corona Light. Mexico sends the U.S. five of its 10 most popular imports. This is a recent trend. A decade ago, Guinness (Ireland), Foster’s (Australia) and Amstel (the Netherlands) were in the top 10 instead of Tecate, Dos Equis and Corona Light.
- The world’s No. 3 beer market is Brazil, a nation now ahead of Germany and Russia. Skol is Brazil’s most popular beer.
Saturday is Zwickelmania, the annual open house for Oregon breweries. Breweries all over the state will be open for tours and samples. 11 am-4pm. Free. More info at oregonbeer.org.