Conveniently enough yesterday @BeerAdvocate tweeted to a link to a story I wrote for the magazine not quite two years ago. It began, “The American hop market seldom finds a comfortable equilibrium for very long, simply because as essential as hops are in brewing beer, they serve almost no other commercial purpose.”
Business was booming then and it is booming now. Last week I revisited one of the reasons why, and Bryan Roth is posting about hops every day this week. In addition, last week Good Beer Hunting took notice of how acreage outside the Northwest is growing and All About Beer had a story about an attempt to grow hops in Florida.
I’m as guilty as anyone about writing about hop farming beyond the American Northwest (for New Brewer, for Brauwelt, and for Beer Advocate in the past and in the current issue), but those stories have listed the challenges farmers everywhere else face. Those include the cost of infrastructure (figure it runs $40,000 to $60,000 to put one acre into operation, and generally you aren’t going to do it one at a time) and geography (more on that in a moment).
A new book, Hoptopia, about the rich history of hop growing and research in Oregon nicely illustrates how difficult hop farming can be even in regions well suited for them. After all, New York once called itself the hop capital of the world, Wisconsin surpassed it briefly, and Oregon took over for much of the first half of the twentieth century. Oregon, specifically the Willamette Valley, is still a major producer. Given current demand its farmers might be growing even more hops were other agriculture products not more lucrative.
Peter Kopp’s book also reminds us how often history repeats itself. Hop growing thrived in Oregon during Prohibition because of the export market. When Prohibition ended domestic demand drew many new farmers into the industry. “In a familiar refrain from the late nineteenth century, industry experts of the 1930s feared the the rapid expansion of hop raising, particularly by inexperienced farmers, would glut the market and depress prices,” Kopp writes. More established hop growers also worried that low-quality hops entering the marketplace from novice farmers would undermine the reputation of quality of Pacific Northwest hops.
Hops coming from outside the Northwest aren’t likely to lower prices anywhere, — they are more expensive to produce — but I’ve recently talked with several brewers concerned about quality. The Hop Quality Group, established in 2010, has not always endeared itself to Northwest farmers because its members made a list of best practices and set about making sure they were met. For instance, sanitation becomes more of an issue for brewers who dry hop extensively, because they are using hops closer to a “raw” form, without the benefits that result from boiling. They don’t want birds nesting in hop kilns, because they know what will end up in their hops and potentially their beer.
Monitoring 60 or so farms in the Northwest is enough of a task. Hundreds of new farms across the country change the math. It’s not clear who will be responsible for guaranteeing quality, but it is a food safety issue. There was a time when governments were involved. A law passed in Massachusetts in 1806 required that all hops packaged for export be inspected and graded, using strict standards. The Massachusetts “first sort” brand became known as the best hops in the United States, European brewers insisted on hops that had passed inspection, and they commanded a premium price. In 1819, the state of New York instituted a similar law. Brewers wanted assurances the bales they bought contained high quality cones, rather than ones that were damaged or old, and weren’t stuffed with various plant parts that had no brewing value.
But first there is a matter of growing enough hops that brewers want to buy and at a competitive price. And geography matters. Hop plants are photoperiodic, and day length is a critical factor for both vegetative growth and flowering. While they grow between latitudes 30º and 52º, they thrive between 45º and 50º. The plants are annual above ground and perennial below, and they need six to eight weeks of dormant time with the temperature below 40º F.
That is why I have a problem wrapping my ahead around this: “The future is brilliant for Florida hops. [Brian] Pearson says that if he can ‘go into breeding and selection, then we can start working with all varieties of hops.'” Tampa is at 28º. I recently talked with Jeanine Davis, said Jeanine Davis, Associate Professor and Extension Specialist in the Department of Horticultural Science at N.C. State University, about the status of hop research in North Carolina. Farmers are struggling to get acceptable yields at 34º, not even harvesting what Virginia farmers are just a bit to the north. “Those few degrees seem to make a real difference,” she said.
In fact, in the Florida story Pearson acknowledges, “In Yakima, they traditionally harvest about eight pounds of hops per plant. In North Carolina, they get two to three. In Florida, we have been getting one pound per plant.” That’s going to be a problem.
I could ramble on in a curmudgeonly way, because even though I’m an advocate for local ingredients in local beers I’m also a fan of reality based agricultural research. Instead I’ll go back to reading Hoptopia.