Hops: The Heart of Beer

by Ginger Johnson | Photo © Torsten Kjellstrand/Travel Portland

Cruising down the highway, your eyes are drawn to a field of tall, lush green bines (not vines) seeming to climb to the sky on a network of supports. If you’ve never seen them before, you wonder, “What in the world are these gorgeous plants?” Answer: Hops. The hop plant is a big part of the Northwest agricultural landscape and holds an important role in the communities that grow them. 

Why Hops?

Hops lend a variety of characteristics to our beer, and they play a critical role in beer making as well. Besides giving us various flavors and crisp levels of bitterness, they contribute oh-so-delicious aromas and lend a preservative quality to our suds.

Mike Seestadt of Hopunion, a hops supplier based in Yakima, waxes rhapsodic by saying that “hops are the heart of beer. We wouldn’t have the flavors and aromas in beer if we didn’t have hops.”

Nancy Frketich of the Oregon Hop Commission adds that the stabilizing properties of hops help the beer last longer.

Row-of-hopsWhy the Northwest?

Hops are successfully bred, cultivated and harvested in the Northwest. Frketich informs us that the two largest growing regions in the U.S. for this climbing plant are the Willamette Valley in Oregon and the Yakima Valley in Washington. She shares that Central Idaho also grows hops commercially.

Why does the hop plant thrive so well in these areas? Seestadt tells us that climatic dryness and moisture both play into the success.

“The Yakima Valley has perfectly controlled irrigation with a lot of moisture coming from the mountains,” says Seestadt. Growers want the moisture but not humidity since the plants are susceptible to downy mildew.

Frketich sums it up that the hop plants simply “like the climate.” And while hops can grow about anywhere, the combination of regional attributes, latitude and a long history of families growing the plant make this region the prime area in the U.S. for successful crops.

All in the Family

Growing these verdant plants is most commonly a multigenerational family business. In Oregon, there are about 22 families that grow hops; in Washington, about 40 families; and Idaho, around five.

Some families’ hop-cultivating roots reach back more than a hundred years. The venerable Goschie Farms of Silverton, Oregon, is a prime example. Because of substantial investments in very specialized equipment, these families are in it for the long haul.

A More Nimble Industry

With so many changes in the American beer industry over the last 25 to 30 years, the hop community has had to respond accordingly. “There are so many different styles of beer now. Instead of growing a couple of hop varieties, there are now over 20 different varieties with some growers growing 12 or more,” says Frketich.

Oregon and Washington are hotbeds of hop research, with the USDA breeding program based at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon. It’s no longer enough to develop varieties that are simply more disease resistant. They must possess the specific flavor and aroma qualities that brewers want.

The brewers themselves are reacting as well. The nascent Hops Quality Group, comprised of a number of breweries and brewery personnel around the country, “are really treating hops as a food product, not just as a harvest that comes in”, says Seestadt. This attention to quality, desirable characteristics and working much more closely with growers is creating a successful dynamic that ultimately serves you and me: the happy beer consumers.

So the next time you look at the wonderful brewed concoction in your glass, raise a toast to the hop researchers, growers, crews and companies that help us enjoy this all-American beverage.

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Hop To It:

Cool Winter Homebrewing

The cooler months are a perfect time to consider homebrewing, a fun and very social activity. With a plethora of home brew shops and knowledgeable personnel to help you get going, brewing beer at home is easier than ever to pursue. It’s cooking after all! You can learn much more about hops, grains, yeast and various other ingredients used in brewing by trying it yourself. And it’s a great way to see hops in action since they’re an integral recipe component in modern beer making. Here are a few helpful suggestions to get started:

  1. Kit: True Brew is a good starter kit that homebrewers can upgrade as desired. (This insight is courtesy of homebrew shop Grains, Beans & Things in Medford, Oregon (grains-n-beans.com).
  2. Clubs: There are oodles of homebrewing clubs across the country. Start by visiting American Homebrewers Association at homebrewersassociation.org to find a group close to you.
  3. Be a “Brewer For The Day”: Contact Standing Stone Brewing Company’s brewer Larry Chase (in Ashland, Oregon) for this fun exercise for yourself or as a gift for a special beer lover in your life (standingstonebrewing.com).
  4. “The Complete Joy of Homebrewing” by Charles Papazian is the tome of the starting brewer, home or pro. You can find this inspiring publication at virtually any bookstore.

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