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Farmers go out on a limb to grow organic hops

Producers overcome cost, logistics to supply craft brewers


BUTTEVILLE — The aroma — a mix of freshly cut grass, pine needles and, strangely enough, watermelon — is sharp and pungent, immediately recognizable to any beer connoisseur.

A three-story 1964 picking machine roars like a jet engine as bits of bright green dance from one conveyor belt to another. The treasure here is the bright green hops, the stuff of which beer is made.

“They go through a bank of 10 different belts; everything that rolls down the belts is the final product,” said Pat Leavy, a third-generation farmer at The Oregon Hophouse in this rural community east of Newberg. Photo Credit: JENNIFER ANDERSON - Producing - Craft brewers in Oregon and beyond rely on the bounty from hops farms in the Willamette Valley. Fall harvest is wrapping up right about now.

Leavy and his wife, Jean Ann, have fueled the craft beer industry since becoming Oregon’s first certified organic hop farm in 2007. Prior to that, hops from the Leavys’ farm — along with most of Oregon’s hop production — was shipped to major brewers, like Anheuser-Busch, and exported.

When the big brewers bowed out in 2008, Oregon hop farmers turned their attention to the craft brewers and started growing different varieties.

Today the Leavys’ farm supplies 60 acres of both organic and conventional hops to 16 brewers across the United States and Canada, including three in Oregon: Logsdon Farmhouse Ales in Hood River, Hopworks Urban Brewery and Standing Stone Brewing Co. in Ashland.

Hopworks and Logsdon are two of the three brewers in the state certified organic by Oregon Tilth, which includes being certified as GMO-free. The other is Laurelwood Brewery.

Organic brewing is still a small share of the market; nationally a handful are certified as organic, although many more make one or two beers with organic ingredients.

About three dozen brewers converged in Portland in June for the North American Organic Brewers Festival, of which Hopworks was a sponsor.

Leavy doesn’t grow solely organic hops at the Hophouse because the market isn’t big enough yet.

He’s supplied three varieties of organic hops to Hopworks since 2007, when owner and brewmaster Christian Ettinger launched the brewery in southeast Portland.

While the cost is about double of conventional (nonorganic) hops, Ettinger said, “To me, there’s no other choice.”

Hopworks also sources its hops from other farms in the Willamette Valley and Yakima, Wash., two of the world’s biggest hot spots.

Ettinger and a half-dozen visitors toured the Hophouse recently, a few days before the Leavys wrapped up the final fall harvest.

After a field crew cuts the vines with machetes and loads them into a truck, a machine called a hop picker strips the leaves and hops off the vine, which then separates the hops with the help of gale-force winds.

The leaves head to compost and the hops stay on the belt, traveling next to the dry room, a hop oven of sorts.

There they’ll sit for about seven hours at 135 degrees, losing their moisture, before they cool and are packaged into 200-pound bales for shipping.

“We just finished the organic harvest two hours ago,” Leavy said around noontime, as his workers and visitors sat down for a lunch catered by Chipotle.

The San Francisco chain has a special relationship to Oregon beer.

Chipotle becomes a partner

You wouldn’t know it if you weren’t looking for it, but Chipotle began selling 16-ounce cans of Hopworks lager and IPA as their only craft beer choice (next to Budweiser and Mexican beers) at their 17 Oregon and southwest Washington locations last September.

In July, Chipotle rolled out HUB to the rest of its 20 Washington state stores; California and other locations are the next frontier.

“It’s rare to find such a sustainable solution for how do you take it to the masses,” said Ettinger, who pitched Chipotle on the idea two years ago as a way to expand the reach of the company’s far-reaching sustainable efforts.

As is becoming a trend among breweries in Oregon and nationally, Hopworks releases an annual sustainability report. Last year, the company diverted 85 percent of its waste from the landfill (just short of its 90 percent goal), purchased renewable energy credits, and banked offsets from its waste diversion to minimize its net carbon footprint.

They source almost all of their base malt from the Klamath basin and the rest from northern Idaho. Hopworks now is exploring ways to brew with wild rice from Tillamook or even use blue corn as a different non-GMO grain source.

“Anybody can do it on this small micro level,” Ettinger said of the impact of the sustainable efforts. “How do you change it on a macro level?”

Besides pairing well with Mexican food, Ettinger says he thought Chipotle was the perfect partner because of their similar ethos and green practices.

While some still associate Chipotle with McDonald’s — which was a major investor in the company from 1998 to 2006, taking it from 16 to 500 restaurants — the company has become a poster child for sustainable restaurants.

Besides sourcing local and organic vegetables, using pasture-fed beef and dairy products without the synthetic hormone rBGH (recombinant bovine growth hormone), Chipotle’s ingredients are GMO-free except for their corn and soy. They recently switched from soybean oil to GMO-free sunflower oil, one step closer to their goal to eliminate all genetically modified organisms from their menu.

Although Chipotle’s overall beer, wine and Patrón margaritas account for just 2 percent of their sales, Ettinger said he is pleased with the collaboration: “The potential for us is great, watching it grow.”

Oregon makes its mark

Oregon is home to 22 family hop farms, producing 17 percent of the country’s market share and about 5 percent of the hops grown in the world.

Germany is the world leader in production. Washington state is tops in the U.S.; Oregon is second and Idaho is third.

Portland’s biggest craft brewers — Deschutes Brewery, BridgePort Brewing Co. and Widmer Brothers Brewing — source from Goschie Farms in Silverton, which grows a dozen hop varieties on 500 acres.

The 110-year-old farm in 2007 became the first in the nation to be certified as Salmon Safe, a strict designation that includes organic operations and growers who manage their pests with biological methods rather than toxic pesticides.

Being a vigorous plant, hops attract lots of pests, which can be managed with natural predators as well as a soap spray.

Owner Gayle Goschie had grown organic hops until this year, when she began phasing it out because it was logistically too difficult.

In order to process the organic and conventional hops separately and allow for time to clean the facility in between, the harvest season for each had to be compressed.

But neither were ready for early harvest, and “we were butting heads there. For us, it would’ve meant setting up an entirely different harvester just for the organics,” which wasn’t cost-effective.

Phasing out of their organic varieties was bittersweet, Goschie said, but she took her knowledge and applied it to her current practices.

“You’re really out there having an ongoing discussion with Mother Nature because there’s no big tricks you can pull out of your bag,” she said. “You really need to be working with the natural system.”

Leavy said he struggles with the same harvest logistics at the Oregon Hophouse but is able to maintain his organic standard with a smaller quantity. He’s limited to offering seven varieties because many varieties are too susceptible to downy mildew; he’s trying to breed hops in a greenhouse that are resistant to that predator.

Hopworks’ Ettinger thrives on innovation in the industry, and is always pushing for variety and a better way to do things.

Under their winery license, Hopworks has just begun developing its own cider, which they hope will be canned or bottled within a year. They also plan to roll out a “reduced gluten” beer by December. They’re not allowed to call it gluten-free because their base products, their IPA and lager, contain trace amounts of gluten.

“I’m pretty sure this will be the only organic reduced-gluten beer,” said Bruce Kehe, Hopworks marketing manager.

The soon-to-come cider, he said, comes from customer demand, and the simple desire to keep innovating.

“Anything that’s well crafted,” Kehe said, “certainly deserves a place at the table.”

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