The Great Hops Revival

THE GREAT HOPS REVIVAL

Bringing it back home

Story by Clayton Schuster • Illustrations by Damon Guthrie

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“This time of year looks bare, empty fields,” says Greg Visscher of The Wobblies, a half-acre hop yard in Pleasanton. “I doubt we have any sprouts. Come April 1, we see some but chop everything back. Around tax day, we’ll select two sprouts for each location. They grow up clockwise and wrap themselves around a piece of rope called a coir. In the middle of summer, when we get to 106-degrees or so, they’ll grow a foot per day up our 16-foot trellis. I can sit in my pool and spend afternoons watching it grow.”

Visscher and others are pioneers on the new frontier of California hop growing. One hundred years ago, California was the beating heart of the world’s hop industry. The band of farmland from Sacramento to the Pacific Ocean was the source of this bitter splendor as hops became part of the region’s social identity. Evidence of this rich history can be found in the crumbling masonry of derelict hop kilns, the names of communities like Hopland, or the odd bine of wild humulus yawning out of the earth on the edge of wine country properties.

“The hop was the king of crops. It was dominant in California for so long,” says Eric Stanley, Curator of History at the Museums of Sonoma County. 

 Cutting fresh hops

Cutting fresh hops

Undisputed dominion over the world market lasted from roughly 1915 to 1922. Golden State hops were prized from coast to coast and across the Atlantic in war ravaged Europe. By the 1930s, however, California’s prominence waned and the Northwest, with its Yakima Valley, ascended to its current throne. As the last commercial hop yard in California went fallow in the 1960s, Yakima became synonymous with hop growing.

“The future of California hops is for growers to find the varieties that grow well here. We need to produce unique flavors that can’t be replicated by growing that variety elsewhere,” says Paul Hawley, owner of Fogbelt Brewing in Sonoma County, a small-scale hop grower, and a founding member of the NorCal Hop Growers Alliance. The Alliance tries to gather local hop growers to share their knowledge with each other and proselytize the benefits of local hops to craft brewers and craft beer drinkers. 

Hawley says, “Beer is a local product, made of agricultural products. My hope is that the Alliance can connect consumers to what they’re drinking and to show a different side of this thing that’s already a part of their life. It’s great for brewers to talk with each other and think about new recipes and oddball styles. But ultimately, brewing is about what consumers want. If we keep using local hops, it’s going to be because people love it and want it.”

Many hop growers and craft brewers believe that wet hop beer is the best way to showcase the value of a local hop source. The process, simply, involves taking a solid recipe and substituting pellet hops with six times that amount in wet (or, newly picked) cones. 

Timing is crucial, as cones decompose quickly. Growers have about eight hours to deliver wet hops either to a brewer for immediate use or into a kiln to dry out for shelf stability. Otherwise, the flavor exponentially decreases and the harvest slowly turns worthless. 

These tight timetables make wet hops beers impossible without a local grower. “If I were to buy wet hops from a supplier in Yakima,” says Justin Beardsley, brewmaster at Eight Bridges Brewing in Livermore, “shipping would almost triple the price. The last time I checked, wet hops from Yakima cost five to seven dollars per pound and then fourteen dollars per pound for overnight shipping. Rarely do you see a California brewery doing that, if at all.”

By all accounts, the effort to arrange for wet hops is totally worthwhile. The effect is described over and over by brewers and growers as the difference between using dried herbs and fresh. Unexpected flavors crop up, including tropical notes like mango and herbal tastes akin to green tea, depending on the hops and the brewer. Specifics regardless, these limited edition brews prove fan favorites over and over and over again. 

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“To me, the beers using our hops are going to be more complex,” says Scott Bice, farm manager at Redwood Hill Farms. “There’s a stronger floral body with some kind of vegetal, sometimes earthy backbone. It’s fresher.” Bice started a hop yard as a way to utilize some new acreage obtained on the edge of his family’s goat dairy. Bice continues, “I think there is something to say about terroir in our soils. I always compare it to if you’re a chef and you’re making your famous spaghetti and you’re using dried basil all year and then you have an opportunity to use that fresh basil, you’re going to jump at the chance. The fresh stuff adds different qualities that enhance the end product. Same thing with beer and hops.”

The process to redevelop a local hop industry has been, for most growers, a learning process fraught by trial and error experimentation. Hops can grow in the state: the proof is found in the pockets of wild humulus dotting the landscape, and the region’s history of market supremacy. The fifty-year gap in hop growing, however, allowed for the old-hand hop tamers to die off and leave the land without their knowledge.

“We were the only grower at first, until about eight years ago,” says Marty Kuchinski, who owns and operates Hops-Meister Farm in Clear Lake with his wife Claudia. “Now there’s… I could think of a dozen California-based commercial producers alone.” 

Hops-Meister began operation in 2004 and had their first harvest the following year. Their product proved an immediate hit with brewers, paving the way for the smaller farms starting up in more recent years. Claudia says, “Our first harvest sold out. Immediately. So we planted more, sold out. Planted more, and continued selling out.” The operation started charting its own course as the husband and wife team threw themselves into the hop yard way of life, the first farmers to do so in California in a half century. They sought information from anywhere and anyone relevant, from growers in Yakima and abroad and from brewers to better understand how they used and handled the product.

For Marty, the success of California hop producers is an extension of the ideas underwriting craft brewing writ large. “There’s something about taking the word craft and embracing it in every sense. It applies to the ingredients as well as the finished product,” he says.

Only time will tell just what kind of industry will come of California grown hops. The public’s enthusiastic reception of wet hop brews proves a strong market will clamor for more variety and hyperlocal products. An established player like Hops-Meister easily confirms the possibility for other farmers to develop roots and a sustained customer base. But a path toward an industry will require more experimentation, more risks, and more failure to find the secret sauce of success.

Paul Hawley says, “I definitely don’t think California can threaten the position that Yakima has taken in the hop industry. We can grow really high quality hops, maybe just not at that scale. But there’s definitely a future for California hop-growing.” ABV

Special thanks to the Museums of Sonoma County for the vintage photographs.

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