Local Hop Farming

Co-Hoperative Ale Available Starting Friday September 16th

'Tis the season for fresh hop beers.  You may be familiar with seeing the plant growing around our breweries' coastal region, but while there's been a few people around here who have talked about commercial hop farming, nothing has materialized.  Our Co-Hoperative Ale is done piecemeal from hops grown in local yards and gardens.

Teresa Retzlaff of 46 North Farm in Olney, has grown hops to weave into wreathes, which she has sold at the Astoria Sunday Market.  Teresa is not only an exceptionally nice person, but she knows a lot first-hand about the challenges and opportunities of hop farming in the Columbia-Pacific region.

Q: How do hops grow in our area and how could one get started?
 A: Hops (Humulus Lupulus) are an amazingly vigorous vine that grows very well in the Pacific Northwest.  Oregon produces about 17% of the US market share for hops, which accounts for about 5% of the hops grown in the world.  Most Oregon hops are grown in Marion County. Oregon is the second largest producer of hops in the US after Washington State.

The main growing requirements for hops are full sun, rich, well-drained soil that is somewhere near to neutral on the pH scale, and a support system that can handle the rapidly growing vines.  They can grow up to 30' tall in one season.  This is the vine to plant if you want to hide a building; however, they die back completely to the ground in winter, so it will only be hidden for half the year.

Q: What has your experience been like growing hops including challenges and successes?

A: Hops grew quite well for us on our old farm in Seaside, but in years where the summers were foggier and cooler, they didn't thrive as well, and late summer rain can cause the flowers to mold or rot.  We're looking forward to getting hops vines established on our farm in Olney, which is much warmer and sunnier.

One of the biggest challenges is supporting the vines.  We had several early trellis designs collapse under the weight of the vines, and have now learned a lot about how to trellis and prune the vines properly.  Another challenge is in harvesting hops, as the vines are quite scratchy and many people find that their skin is irritated by exposure to hops vines.  Wearing gloves and long sleeve shirts can help.

In September, we used to decorate our market booth with hops bundles, and we always attracted a number of older people who would stop by to reminisce about working as hops pickers when they were young.  From the stories we heard, it was hard, scratchy work harvesting hops commercially and no one regretted that they were no longer doing it!  But maybe on a smaller scale it won't be so bad.

Q: Why have you grown hops and what do you use them for?

A: I'm embarrassed to say this to a business so renowned for brewing such great beer, but I first planted hops vines because I had read that the vines were excellent for making dried wreath forms, which they are!  They generously give lots of material to work with, and the flowers were initially a by-product that I tried to figure out a use for. I would harvest huge bunches of hops and make hop wreaths, and gather dried bundles of hops to sell for fall decorations. I also dried the hops to make herbal sleep pillows, which you can tuck into your pillowcase at night to help you sleep.  But mainly, I wove the stripped vines into wreath forms that we used for our fall herb and flower wreaths.

I did plant one variety called Nugget, which I had read was good for making English-style ales, and which I thought my husband, Packy, might enjoy using if he got around to making any home-brewed beer. Sadly, I've kept him so busy with work on the farm that it hasn't happened yet.  Maybe next year!

Q: Have you ever thought about growing hops commercially for breweries?  Why aren't there any local farms currently doing this?

A: We are both beer-drinkers, and would love to grow hops commercially for local breweries on our farm.  I love watching the vines shoot up out of the ground each year.  I swear you can see them grow each day. The chartreuse green flowers are odd-looking but beautiful to me, I enjoy seeing them dangling all over the vines in early September like tiny Japanese lanterns.  We've been figuring out the best spot to plant the vines on our new farm, because once you plant them it's best to let them establish there and not keep moving them around.  

The north coast isn't the ideal place for growing hops, our summers can be cool and wet, which hops don't like.  A heavy rain just as you're about to harvest your hops can be a disaster, and you just never know what kind of summer we'll have here.  But there are good micro-climates here on the coast, and I'm hoping our new farm is in one that will lend itself to hop growing.

If they have the room to devote to growing the vines, I think local farms could do well offering fresh hops in the late summer-fall for fresh hop beers both to our great local breweries and to the growing number of home brewing enthusiasts here.  A local farm can offer hops that will be fresher than anything a brewer might get from a farm that’s hours away.  Something else to consider is that in Oregon, hops that are dried and bundled for sale are required to go through a USDA inspection process with a mandatory assessment per pound that growers must pay, so that might also be a deterrent to a small farm considering setting up a dried hops business. Right now there is no required inspection or assessment for fresh hops, although with the growing market for fresh hops in Oregon that will probably change.

Q: Anything else you'd like to add about hops, farming, beer (it's fresh hop beer time), and/or community?

A: For people who are interested in growing hops themselves, it should be noted that Oregon has a quarantine that prevents you from bringing in roots from any other state except Washington and Idaho.  Fortunately there are many great sources for hop plants in Oregon, so it's not hard to find a good selection of varieties. 

Packy and I are looking forward to tasting the 2011 Co-Hoperative beer that the Fort George brews, it's always tasty, and I love knowing that locally grown hops have gone into it.  Hopefully 46 North Farm will have fresh hops to contribute for the 2012 batch!  If there are particular hop varieties that people are interested in having a fresh local source for, they should get in touch with us.  We want to grow varieties that people want to use!  I'll still use the vines for dried wreath forms, but the Fort George has helped me develop a greater appreciation for the potential of those funny looking green flowers.

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