Hop roots run deep in Oregon. Patrick Leavy of the Oregon Hophouse can trace his family's involvement in hop farming back to 1912, when his Irish émigré grandfather established the family farm in Aurora, just east of Champoeg State Heritage Area.
At the time, there were hundreds of others—Leavy has records showing about 500 hop farmers in the state in 1933. But plague and Prohibition caused them to dwindle, and only a handful of Oregon's original hop families are still farming today.
Prohibition, obviously, diminished the demand for beer ingredients—the few hop farms that survived rode it out by producing hops for export and alcoholic medicinal elixirs that tasted a lot like beer. When Prohibition ended in 1933, downy mildew struck Oregon hops. Much of the hop industry moved to Washington's drier, less mildew-prone Yakima Valley. Farmers who stayed in the damp climate of the Willamette Valley continued to battle downy mildew, which can lay waste to an entire commercial crop. Mechanization in the 1940s changed the industry, and by the '50s, if you didn't have this machinery you couldn't compete, forcing small farmers out of the hop business.
Leavy's grandmother Ella kept his family in the business after his grandfather died in 1941. Today, Leavy Farm is going strong. The land is owned by Patrick's father, federal appeals Judge Edward Leavy, who leases it to Patrick. We sat down with Patrick and talked about hop history, this year's crop, and an experimental variety he is growing called X17.
WW: Given the summer heat, how is the crop looking this year?
Patrick Leavy: The hop crop is a little bit early, but I'm not quite in the camp that this is an exceptionally early year or anything like that. Oregon's got irrigation, so water was not a factor. The dominating thing that affected this hop wasn't the hot summer, but the mild winter. I've seen it about three times in my 37 years of growing hops. When you have a warm winter, certain varieties like Willamette don't get enough "chilling hours," which regulate their growth hormone. Hops are a perennial plant, and when some varieties go dormant, they wait for a cold snap to grow again. Last year, they went through the winter waiting for cold, and were still waiting for it in spring. There was some very low vigor, and as they warmed up, they were forced to grow. But the Willamette crop in Oregon is below average—it didn't grow very fast, and the vines are small this year.
That problem only affected some varieties?
Yes. The Cascade variety sat around and said, "I don't care about the winter, it's warm, I'm growing." Nugget didn't care. Most varieties didn't care. The quality of the hops this year looks very nice. Oregon is historically pretty consistent in that area.
When did hop farmers such as your family start feeling the craft-beer revolution in Oregon?
When craft beer first started in the late-'70s and '80s, the brewers were still having to deal with the varieties that the larger breweries were demanding from growers. But in the '90s, as the craft brewers started developing, they were looking for different hops, and now we have around 15 varieties growing in Oregon.
What kind of hops are you growing?
We've got seven varieties, and about half of the farm is in organic production. We grow Nugget and Crystal as our nonorganic hops, and Magnum, Golding, Fuggle, Perle and Liberty as organics. We also have a breeding program focused on improving the farming of hops, and have a new organic hop that we have given an acre to this year that we are calling X17. Cider Riot has done some trials with it, and it has a fruity characteristic. We are going to send 15 pounds of [X17] to Odell Brewing in Colorado this year, and hope they make a good experimental brew with them.
What other breweries do you sell to?
We sell our organic hops directly to about 15 breweries. Our biggest customer is Hopworks, but we also sell to Logsdon Farmhouse Ales, Ambacht, and we sell all the way down to Standing Stone Brewing in Ashland, among others.
Can you talk about how Oregon hops taste compared to their Yakima and Idaho counterparts?
It's so subjective. Of a given variety, you'll have brewers who prefer the Oregon variety over the Washington or Idaho variety, and vice versa. Certain varieties like Nugget do yield better in Oregon, and certain hops yield better in Washington. Obviously I think Oregon hops are better, but then I have that in me.