Each month respected beer writer Stan Hieronymus produces Hop Queries, a must-read summary of what is happening in the hop world, and has kindly offered to let us publish it for Australian industry readers. If you would like to subscribe directly, you can here.
Welcome to Vol. 5, No. 4. Greetings from the Willamette Valley in Oregon. Farmers in this valley have been harvesting hops for more than two weeks. Yesterday I saw Willamette hops in a kiln at Goschie Farms that looked terrific, and smelled just as good. That’s quite a contrast to last year when fires filled the air around here with smoke that left some of the crop unsuitable for beer.
Plenty of hops remain to be picked, and some of the bines still hanging show the effects of stress from the heat dome that settled over the region at the outset up summer. The same is true to the north in the Yakima Valley, where harvest, which typically begins after that in Oregon but not this much after, only started in earnest late last week.
“This is the latest we’ve started since I’ve been involved (in 1987), and the hardest to estimate,” said Eric Desmarais at CLS farms.
Fire is of greater concern this year in Washington than Oregon. At dawn last Tuesday the Air Quality Index ticked above 500 in Yakima itself, although as I drove southeast through the valley the smoke wasn’t nearly as apparent. We’ve been seeing similar haze, from fires in California, in the foothills outside Denver for the past two months. And, again, the smoke is not nearly as thick around Yakima as it was a year ago.
“You couldn’t see to the end of this row,” Hopsteiner scientist Nicholi Pitra said last week, pointing to plants perhaps 25 yards away in a Steiner experimental field.
The air quality is fine in the city of Yakima this morning (click on map to see a live update), but the Schneider Springs fire to the north and west is still burning and hop farmers and processors are paying close attention. There are many questions to be answered about smoke taint, and they would rather that this year not turn into another case study.
As I visited farmers toward the end of the week, a text message was bouncing around about a single lot of Cascade that had been rejected because it was not aromatic enough. Had the grower underestimated the effects of heat stress and picked it too early? Should the grower have taken into account the role lower UV impact (because of smoke) would have on the development of odor compounds?
When I ask these questions brewers get nervous. It’s not my intention to shout fire in a crowded hop field. I suspect any brewer, and many will be headed to the Yakima and Willamette valleys in the next weeks to select the hops they will brew with in 2022, would feel reassured standing beside a kiln at Goschie Farms and inhaling deeply.
2021 pre-harvest estimates
Members of the International Hop Growers Convention shared their outlook for the 2021 crop with each other shortly before harvest began. Briefly:
In the American Northwest, hops have for the most part recovered from the heat dome that settled over the area in late June, particularly when irrigated water was available. Optimistic Washington farmers expect an average crop and Oregon is projecting average to slightly below average yield.
The impact of hail storms in the Czech Republic and Poland varies. In the Czech Republic, damage ranged between 10% and 100% across about 2,500 acres with approximately 750 acres a total loss. The 2021 crop is fully contracted, so don’t expect spot hops. In Poland, hail hammered the plants earlier in their development and most recovered. An average year is expected.
Two major storms in August caused Hop Growers of Slovenia to lower their June estimate for the crop by 20-25%. A hail storm in the Savinja Valley was most damaging, affecting almost 1,500 acres.
In France, growers were not ready to estimate yield. After a cold spring, hops basically caught up with where they would expected to be, with abundant laterals and foliage but not an equal number of flowers early in August.
German hop farmers have a saying: “July is the Hopfaflicka (a hop mender).” Plenty of rain in July put the 2021 crop back on track in the Halltertau growing region, and an average yield now seems possible. Harvest is just now getting into full swing.
An average to slightly below average crop is expected in England. A bit from their report serves as a reminder of the challenges growers face:
“April, May, June and July have seen above average precipitation in all months making field work and all farm work very difficult. Day and Night time temperatures have been below average for the whole growing season.
“Pest and disease are under control. April started with outbreaks of Powdery Mildew, which were quickly brought under control. During May and June Downey Mildew became an issue as some farms had difficulty in applying spray when required, due to ground conditions, that were too soft to travel on due to the amount of precipitation. Red Spider has not been an issue this year due the cooler growing conditions. Varying amounts of aphid from farm to farm where seen, which have been successfully brought under control.
“There may well be some labour issues with some farms due to travel restriction from Europe and bureaucracy in all countries!”
Finding the edge
The good-size cooler in the small beer garden at CLS Farms in the Yakima Valley that many brewers will visit in the coming weeks is stocked with beers flavored with El Dorado hops. At Goschie Farms in the Willamette Valley the beer bridge if full of beers brewed with hops grown on the farm.
This interaction between brewers and growers that is common today was rare 15 years ago. As a result brewers have an opportunity to let farmers (and breeders) know what they want and to learn how to get more out of the hops they have.
One day last week, I watched Darren Stankey of Hopsteiner add Salvo, a new advanced product from Steiner, to the kettle in the pilot brewery at Bale Breaker Brewing. On another, I tried three different YCH Hops Cryo blends at Single Hill Brewing.
They are part of Single Hill’s “Outcross” series. The brewers at Single Hill start with a base beer, split it into three tanks and dry hop with three different, but similar in some way, varieties. For instance, three experimentals from John I. Haas or from the Association for the Development of Hop Agronomy.
The Cryo blends included one labeled M, for mango, one labeled B, for berry, and the blend that was released to brewers. Perhaps it was the power of suggestion, but to me there was an extra bit of berry in B. On the other hand, although others at Single Hill noticed mango in M, it seemed no more mango-ish me than many other modern IPAs.
CryoPop, the blend generally available, was the standout. Beyond all the flashy-I’m-the-new-sexy-hop flavors I found, mostly in the retro (exhaling) aroma, a cedarwood note common in old school landrace varieties.
All Dorado from Three Weavers Brewing in Inglewood, California, is a similar collaboration. As the name suggests, it is a single-hop beer and the hop is El Dorado. A team from CLS joined Alexandra Nowell and brewers at Three Weavers in California to brew the beer.
(An aside. Any discussion about the success of hop varieties should include marketing. El Dorado became the 10th most planted hop in the Northwest in 2020, 11 years after CLS Farms, which bred the variety, gave her a name. CLS licenses the right to grow El Dorado to 22 other farms, and has provided unique marketing support from the outset, even giving El Dorado its own Twitter handle in 2011. Read more in a sponsored post at Craft Beer & Brewing.)
Nowell was an early El Dorado convert, first using it when she brewed at Drake’s Brewing, but had not previously made a single-hop beer with it. The idea to brew it sprang from a conversation with CLS co-owner Shelley Desmarais.
Three Weavers used El Dorado in three different forms – T-90 pellets, Lupomax concentrated pellets and whole cones – at different times in the brewing process. They added T-90s for during the boil, Lupomax and whole cones in the whirlpool, T-90s for dry hopping, and then racked bright beer onto cones for three days.
Because Three Weavers brews often with El Dorado its creates aromas and flavor very familiar to sensory panels. They know to expect citrus, tropical and stone fruit. “There was something new, berry, Concord grape, blackberry,” Nowell said. “It surpassed anything we’d tasted before.
“We found the edge.”
Nowell can’t say definitively which addition or which form made the difference. “I wish we could evaluative the (impact) of whole cones into bright beer,” she said, at the same time wondering if the concentrated pellets were responsible.
“We found something that wasn’t pulled out of El Dorado before,” she said. “It was more aggressive and more assertive, but it still had the sweetness.”
From hops to hemp
Midwest Hop Producers in Plattsmouth, Nebraska, abandoned their hop farming operation earlier this year, reducing acreage in that state by more than 50%. Bruce and Annette Wiles farmed two yards with a total of 32 acres. Hop Growers of America estimated Nebraska acreage at 49 at the beginning of 2021.
“No sympathy, please,” Annette Wiles said. “We’ve had a great experience. What we’ve learned about raising a specialty crop, such as hops, is invaluable.”
Third-generation row crop farmers, the Wiles have turned to hemp production. They began growing hemp in 2019 in a greenhouse. They currently can’t cultivate hemp on their hop farmland because of different regulations for chemical inputs. The land is in remediation. For now, they are growing starts in their greenhouse for other farmers and developing an educational conference for the regional hemp industry.
The larger of their two hop fields, a 20-acre yard, was destroyed by two different floods in 2019. “Last year, we waited to see if the plants recovered, but most plants had died,” Bruce Wiles said. “I would have had to replace the entire field and it takes three years for it to mature. The cost of replanting and the three-year wait for production was too costly. The extreme cost of repopulating the field outweighed the return.”
– The call of wild hops. An adventure.