Madras is a 'sweet spot' for growing the plant
There has been a revival of hops growing in the U.S., in the wake of a worldwide shortage that left beer brewers nearly hop-less several years ago.
Hops have been grown in the Willamette Valley for years, but Central Oregon is just beginning to experiment with the crop.
Some 38 people showed up recently for a free class on hops-growing basics, offered at the Madras COCC Center. A tour of the hops yard of Madras grower Jim Spencer was included in the class. Two commercial hops ventures are currently operating in Central Oregon, Spencer's and one in Tumalo.
Spencer, who is a home brewer, said his first hops plants were for his own beermaking. "It all started with me thinking I'd put in a few plants -- and now I've got this," he said, gesturing to his half-acre hops yard on Ames Lane, west of Madras.
"I've never farmed before and learned on the Internet and by trial and error," he said, noting he's worked at a body shop in Bend for 28 years.
Spencer realized he couldn't handle the 18-foot poles used by commercial hops yards.
"It takes a lot of hired hands to do the high trellises, and labor cost is a big factor," he said.
Then he heard about a new low trellis system. "In Yakima, farms are experimenting with low poles and have developed a harvesting machine that just two guys can operate. It strips the cones only, and leaves the vines, so they don't have to cut strings and restring each year," he said.
Deciding to go that route, Spencer said he "went whole hog in 2009" and planted 350 hops plants. He installed nine-foot poles, strung with UV resistant polyurethane netting that will last for 30 years, and put in drip irrigation.
"This system should last my lifetime, and the hops will grow for 20-30 years without replanting," he said, adding, I'll grow the hops, and figure out how to market them later."
The advantage of netting is that the vine dies, leaving a small hard stem. When the hops sprout the next year, he said, "they grab onto the old stem and train themselves to grow up the netting." In tall pole yards, workers have to train the vines.
The disadvantage is the plant is not as tall, so you get fewer hops cones, since most of the cones are produced at the top of the plant.
To compensate for the lack of height, Spencer lets his vines grow over the top and hang down the other side of his trellises.
"There are true dwarf varieties, but they are copyrighted and I can't get them," he said.
The varieties he has planted include Cascade, Chinook, Centennial, Nugget, Newport, Magnum and CTZ. There are bittering hops and aroma hops, "It all depends on what you're going for in the beer," he said.
Hops are sought after by beermakers because of the yellow "lupalin" inside the cones. It is not pollen, as many think, but an oily part of the plant that produces flavor, bitterness and aroma for the beer. "The cone is extremely bitter if you taste it," Spencer related.
In the beermaking process, barley is malted to change starches into sugars, then it's mashed and steeped in hot water, which extracts the sugar into the water.
"You boil the liquid for one to one and a half hours, where a lot of chemistry happens. It would still be too sweet to drink, so hops are added to compensate for the sweetness," he explained.
Madras is a great place to raise hops. "The 45th parallel, worldwide, is the sweet spot -- the center of the hops universe -- where the day length is right and it's not too hot or cold," he said.
A lot of brewers know that, which is why Spencer bought the domain name "Latitude 45 Hops" for his farm. The name will help him market his product on his Facebook page and the website he is in the process of creating.
"I'm not big enough to sell to a brewery -- you need 100 acres -- and everyone here has hops in their backyard. So, I hope to sell on the Internet to homebrewers," he said.
His plants sprout around the first of March and grow an inch a day, reaching the top of the poles on around June 21. His place is not organic, but he tries to do things naturally.
He builds up the soil with steer manure, compost, and mineral dust. To control aphids, grasshoppers and spider mites, he sprays twice with a solution of Ivory soap, cayenne pepper and canola oil.
Harvest is from late summer to the first of October, depending on the temperature. He tests the cones' moisture content to tell when they're ready.
Then he and his girlfriend Joleen Noble, who also lives on the farm, tackle the labor-intensive harvest. "I take a lot of vacation in August to harvest with help from Joleen," he said.
Spencer built a four-foot-tall stand on wheels so he wouldn't have to climb a ladder to cut vines. He rolls the stand down the row, clipping off the heavy-ladened, draped-over tops of the vines.
In a small shed, he built a seven-foot-high dehydrator with wooden shelves, that dries trays of hops cones in 48 hours. They are then vacuum-sealed by hand using a Seal-A-Meal.
The couple have three to four weeks to pick, dry and package thousands of cones before the weather turns cold. Because it took two years for the plants to mature, this is only Spencer's second harvest.
"I harvested 40-50 pounds last year, which is stuffed in our 20-foot upright freezer, and I will try to market them on the website as a mail-order business," he said.
"I'm shooting for a harvest of 240 pounds of dried hops this year," Spencer said.
While commercial breweries buy hops in bulk on contract for $5 per pound, homebrew shops sell hops at $3 for a 2 ounce bag. Spencer's price will be somewhere inbetween.
Customers want good-quality hops, and being a homebrewer himself, he knows what they're looking for. They will also be buying directly from the farmer, because his hops are grown, dried and processed all on his place.
Most of the Bend breweries want to purchase 100 pounds of one variety of hops, but he is currently in talks with a brewer interested in buying 40-50 pounds -- enough to brew a single batch of beer. The two families raising hops in Tumalo are also looking into the possibility.
Equipment for full-scale hops growing, like the football-field-sized dryers used in the Willamette Valley, is very expensive. "I think a Central Oregon Co-op would be awesome," he said, noting with enough members, they could afford the equipment.
Looking over his ripening crop, Spencer said, "I'm looking forward to retirement so I can be out here all the time. My head is spinning with ideas."