I love beer, but I was ignorant of the realities of hop production when I found myself invited, along with a group of beer writers, to Elk Mountain Hop Farm in Northern Idaho, just ten miles from the Canadian border. The farm sits on 1,700 acres of wilderness—downtown Bonner's Ferry (population 2,500) is half an hour away. On the evening I arrived, the nearby Selkirk Mountains were cast in silhouette, a striking background for the country's largest contiguous hop farm.
At the height of the picking season, which starts in September, hundreds of workers tend to the hops. During this year's harvest, the picking combines and the massive kilns used for drying will operate 24 hours a day. These are boom times and Elk Mountain is thriving.
The farm's business hasn't always been so good. Just a couple of years ago, Elk Mountain was in trouble. In the 2000s, a global hop surplus led to brewers such as Anheuser-Busch, which started the farm in 1987, stockpiling excess hop pellets. They simply didn't need any more hops. In the spring of 2010, Elk Mountain's farmers had to rip out all but 70 acres of their hops rather than maintain a crop that wouldn't be used. For people who had spent their whole adult lives growing hops, times were hard. No one had seen this coming.
"We were really naïve and unaware of the inventory build over time," plant manager Ed Atkins told me at a picnic table on the property.
Without hops, the team had to find other ways to support itself. They planted canola, and then wheat. They didn't bring down the trestles used to grow the hops, instead trying to cultivate these new crops between the old equipment. It wasn't a great solution.
Then, things changed. In 2011 Anheuser-Busch announced it was buying the Chicago craft brewery Goose Island. Suddenly, there was work to be done on the farm. Brett Porter, Goose Island's brewmaster, worked with Atkins to figure out what could be planted on the Idaho farm for use in ramped-up quantities of Goose Island beers. Today, Elk Mountain grows many of the hops used by Goose Island, including Cascade, Amarillo, Mt. Hood, and Saaz.
"It was a breath of fresh air," Aktins said of the Goose Island acquisition. Elk Mountain Farms was back.
Goose Island had a lot to gain from the new relationship, too. Having direct access to a farm means a steady supply of sometimes hard-to-find hops, such as the Millennium variety, a bittering hop that Porter loves. Most brewers couldn't dream of this kind of access. Porter, along with Goose Island Lead Brewer Keith Gabbett, travel to Elk Mountain several times a year to choose which hops they want. When I discussed this luxury with Gabbet, he laughed and responded, "Isn't it awesome?"
Walking through the fields at Elk Mountain was a surreal experience. It's one thing to drink a beer brewed with Cascade hops, but to grab a Cascade cone straight from the bine, rub it between your palms, and breathe in the fresh aromas is something else entirely. The floral character of the hops is almost overwhelming. Simply walking through the rows of plants, the smell envelops you.
Cascade hops are one of nearly a dozen types of hops that take up most of the fields at Elk Mountain. Cascades are known for their floral and grapefruity notes—signature flavors of craft beer stars like Sierra Nevada's Pale Ale and Deschutes' Mirror Pond. All of the Cascades grown at Elk Mountain are used by Goose Island, going into beers such as Goose Island IPA, 312 Urban Wheat, and their new Rambler IPA. Goose Island also takes all of the farm's Mt. Hood hops, a mild, woodsy variety used in beers like 312 Urban Pale.
To celebrate their relationship with Elk Mountain, Goose Island brewed a beer called Ten Hills Pale Ale. The beer features exclusively Elk Mountain hops: grapefruity Cascade, minty Perle, and earthy, spicy Saaz.
How Hops are Grown
Hops at Elk Mountain start as sprouts that are misted for ten to twelve days before they're planted in individual pots in the greenhouse. After growing roots in the pots, the plants are moved to large beds outside until they're ready for the fields.
Hops climb. You can't just put a hop plant in the ground and let it turn into a crop. A network of 20 foot tall trestles is required to support the plants at Elk Mountain. Each bine grows on strings that are tied to the top of the trestles. Once the plants go in, it takes two seasons to get them operating at close to a full yield. The plants are irrigated with a drip system and fertilized regularly. Both processes can be automated from a central point on the farm.
Picking at Elk Mountain farms starts in early September. Hundreds of workers come to the farm for the season, and there's so much to be done that Elk Mountain has trouble finding enough labor. Harvest ramps up quickly—some hop plants have a window as short as five days in which they need to be picked. The farm has six combines specially built to work between the tall rows of hops. To keep up with the crops, these combines run all day and night.
Once picked, the hops head to the recleaner, a warehouse-sized maze of conveyor belts and strainers that separates the hop cones from leaves and other debris. The cones are piled up 30 inches high in giant kilns, where hot air passes through them from underneath to dry them.
As you walk into the kiln room, you're first greeted by the roar of the fans that push the air through the hops. Walking up a flight of stairs lets you look onto the kilns. The experience is like stepping into a sauna out of a brewer's dream. The air is hot and humid, and the earthy, grassy smell of hops engulfs you. I saw the kiln at one sixth of its capacity; I can't imagine what it's like running at 100%.
After kilning, the hops head to another building to dry. That's the end of their life on the farm: next, they're moved to cold storage to await processing. For easier use and longer shelf-life, hops tend to be ground up and formed into pellets after drying.
Beer lovers in the past few decades have proudly declared themselves "hopheads," dutifully listing off their favorite varieties and the characteristics of each. Despite this, drinkers rarely get to see hop production first hand. Even brewers primarily see hops as dried pellets coming off of trucks. In an age where the food world is dominated by the ethos of farm-to-table consumption, the farm often gets lost in the beer industry.
I have always viewed beer-making as a craft. The work of the brewers was what made beer great to me; the raw ingredients were secondary. But without the work of hop farmers, we wouldn't have beer as we know it. After visiting Elk Mountain, I have a new understanding of what goes into each bottle, each can, each pint. Each sip takes me back to northern Idaho, to the acres upon acres of fields lined with towering hop plants, a beer-lover's paradise framed by foggy mountains.
Note: The author traveled to Idaho on a press trip hosted by Anheuser-Busch and Goose Island.