When talking to someone in the hop industry, it is not uncommon for the Pacific Northwest (Washington, Oregon, and Idaho), to be referred to as the traditional growing region. However, digging a little deeper into the history of hop growing in the US, an even more traditional hop-growing region is unearthed: the Atlantic Northeast.
Without too much of a history lesson, essentially, as the thirst for fresh beer, hops, and American patriotism grew stronger in the mid 1600s, hops were grown commercially in the Massachusetts Bay Colony region, and then later in New York. Like many things in the new world, the East Coast was the epicenter of hops until the early 1920s when production ceased thanks to Prohibition and downy mildew. The West Coast survived (which included California at the time), and has been the heart of the US hop industry ever since (Heinrich Joh. Barth, Christiane Klinke, Claus Schmidt, The Hop Atlas). Currently, Washington, Idaho and Oregon produce over 95% of the US crop.
Now, however, at Hop Growers of America, we are seeing people grow hops again in these old growing regions and in new areas, too. Currently, we know of 30 states that are producing hops for commercial use, and we’re positive there is more to discover. In late February, there was even an announcement that the University of Florida received a $158,000 grant to explore hop growing in the Sunshine State.
Photo courtesy of Michigan Hop Alliance
Where is all this interest coming from?
If you missed the announcement by the Brewers Association in December of last year, we are now at more breweries than ever in the United States, hitting 4,144 as announced December 2. Not to mention, 1800 more breweries are in planning. Excitement for hoppy, aromatic beers has not only reinvigorated the US hop industry, it has also changed it. US hop acreage has totally flipped in focus – going from roughly a 70/30 split of bittering/aroma hops to the opposite, and Germany has been affected similarly, going from an aroma focus to an alpha dominance.
The demand for American aromas are apparent – and the desire for aromatic, USA-grown hops, both stateside and globally, is unprecedented.
So how do small
growers fit in to the story? Thanks to this surge in craft breweries and trends
with the ultimate end-consumer, craft drinkers, there are some opportunities
that have caught the attention of people across the country, causing them to
start hop farming:
● A large demand for hops that continues to increase thanks to:
● increasingly higher hopping rates along with
● A demand for local hops thanks to the locavore movement
● A demand for "green" hops -- a small, but growing trend in demand for wet hopped beers which require un-dried hops that go from field to brew kettle within 48 hours of being picked.
Addressing the first point, a large demand for hops, it’s no secret that IPA’s are the clear leader of popular styles in craft. Bart Watson, Chief Economist for the Brewers Association, looked at the runaway success of this category in his August 2015 article, What’s the Next IPA? Spoiler alert, it’s IPA (i.e., nothing’s coming close to this style’s success anytime soon).
With a lot of IPA, comes the need for a lot of hops, especially when brewed by smaller breweries. Watson spoke to this more recently at our 60th Annual American Hop Convention, and revealed that smaller breweries are typically less efficient with their hop usage.
So, with all of this demand for hops, traditional growing regions are increasing their acreage at incredible rates to keep up – in 2015 alone, the US hop acreage increased by 15.4%, 10 acres shy of 6,000 more acres after a 3,000 increase the year before. People new to hop growing, and many times, new to agriculture too, see this as an opportunity to alleviate these needs. Growing conditions are rarely as ideal as they are in the Pacific Northwest; however, some regions are having success such as, Michigan which was the non-PNW leader in the 2015 US acreage report at 320, New York behind them with 250, and Wisconsin at 170.
A key point to note is the ideal latitudes of hop growing: between 35° and 55° north or south of the equator. As a reference, Yakima Valley, the German Hallertauer, and Nelson in New Zealand are at 46°, 48°, and 41°, respectively.
The second niche for small growers is the locavore movement – a big selling point for breweries looking to appeal to this audience. While “local” only gets you so far for so long if you can’t deliver quality, it is a niche important to some breweries and craft drinkers. This appeals to a communal sense of support for neighboring businesses, and/or the environmental impact of a smaller ecological footprint by sourcing local raw materials. Civil Eats highlights this in their list of 5 beers which use all local ingredients.
Photo courtesy of Steve Miller at Cornell from Pedersen Hop Farm.
Lastly, green hops are growing in popularity as the focus in hoppy craft beers shifts toward concentrating on aroma rather than solely being an IBU blast to the palate. Wet hop beers are logistically very difficult as it is, never mind adding in the dynamics of shipping wet hops hundreds or thousands of miles away from the source to your brewery under a very tight deadline. Because of these constraints and the high cost of drying equipment otherwise necessary, selling wet hops is a good entry for those looking to dip their toes in hop farming.
In addition to the reasons listed above, one final consideration for more hop growing regions is terroir. A term traditionally reserved for wine, this is an exciting new area of research that is just starting to be explored and discovered for hops. A few truly expert noses claim to be able to spot, or sniff, rather, a pinpointed region even within the Yakima Valley. If this is truly the case, this could lead to some exciting developments as existing varieties are tried out in different regions.
Overall, everything discussed above shows that, if done right, there is a place for new growers in new regions across the country. However, it should be noted that hop growing is not only an expensive undertaking requiring a lot of capital investment, it is a specialty crop requiring a significant investment in time as well.
Nearly all of the operations in the Pacific Northwest are multi-generational farms, with inherent knowledge passed down through each generation, as well as assets like land and harvesting equipment. Starting out a new farm will require a lot of patience, trial and error, and specialty equipment. While it certainly can be done, it is not a decision to be made lightly.
If you are interested in starting a hop farm, some good resources include looking at historical data by going through our statistical reports. A new cost study is also available on our website, an interactive worksheet that allows you to plug in your costs compared to commercial growers and see what you’ll need to break even, and what you’ll need to make a profit. Don’t underestimate your time, and don’t underestimate how quickly handpicking cones becomes a tedious task.
If you are already a commercial hop grower in the US – even if you have just a quarter of an acre – we will be launching Grower ID numbers very soon, a required practice for growers in the Pacific Northwest, and preferred by brewers for quality traceability. This will be a free service.
Lastly, in the coming year we will also be launching a new website – still at usahops.org – which will include educational materials geared towards small growers looking to start their own operation. Keep an eye out for updates, a Grower Number Application form, and more by liking us on Facebook, and by checking in on the site.