It’s hot to grow hops

Anyone who has had a beer in the last two years knows that hoppy beers are at the top of the market, but what’s all this about growing hops? It seems like everywhere you look nowadays people are growing hops, picking hops or searching for hops. There are a few reasons for this new trend, and one of them is the Farm to Fork movement that’s happening right here in Sacramento. Farm to bottle? Well, it’s clear that now is the time.

This year’s theme seems to be sustainability in the brewing industry. At The Art of Beer it was a hot topic, and since then we have heard about some monumental changes to the industry. Pamphlets detail new green production methods, brewers have built ties with local farmers and on bottles you now see the names of farms and beekeepers. No longer are we interested in making beer fast and cheap, and using local hops is a part of this.

Almanac Beer Co., known for their “Farm to Bottle Beer,” is quickly growing in popularity. Sierra Nevada has a hop yard on their estate, thus, an estate hop yard, and Rogue has its own farms and produces hops, grain, honey and much more.

We are now watching the movement towards growing your own hops go local. Homebrewers may have been doing this already for years, growing hops for their own beers, providing nice shade for their backyard barbecues or simply to learn more about an integral brewing ingredient. Now, starting with Boneshaker Public House in Rocklin and Ruhstaller of Sacramento, local establishments and breweries have taken to the idea as well.

High climbing hops at Lucky Labrador Brewing Company in Portland, Oreg.

For those unfamiliar with hop production, new hop plants generally come from cuttings from a cone-producing female plant. A rhizome is a stem with some root growth. Boneshaker Community Brewery planted 75 hop rhizomes in an amazingly small-sized planter box just a couple of weeks back. They plan to add an herb and vegetable garden as well.

BCB looks to be starting things out right, with estate Centennial hops in the ground even before opening to the public. Centennial hops, one of the main three Cs, along with Columbus and Cascade, provide that West Coast IPA flavor we all know well.

Watch for news in late summer or early fall on when the brews from Boneshaker Community Brewery will be available at Boneshaker Public House.

Nugget hops to be used in future Boneshaker Community Brewery brews

Ruhstaller planted their first hops at the Center for Land-Based Learning, but they now have their own New Ruhstaller Hop Farm just over in Dixon. “Hop off the Grid,” a release party for the revived Gilt Edge lager, took place there on Thursday.

New Helvetia Brewing Company is in on the local hop scene as well. According to founder Dave Gull, they have gotten wind of some native California Cluster hops that still grow wild around the American and Cosumnes Rivers. Is this true or simply a figment of someone’s imagination? They’re going to find out by going on a hop hunting expedition later this summer.

Growing things locally and then using them to make more local stuff? Revolutionary! It’s all the rage.

Yes, dissenters, please enter the discussion here. There are certainly some crops that really shouldn’t be grown in this valley due to the amount of resources they require, unnaturally, and the deterioration of the natural conditions they cause. I’m no expert, so I plan to stay out of it, but I encourage those in the know to share their knowledge. Are hops sustainable here in the Central Valley?

Hops need to be well-watered. Most of the world’s hops are grown in places like the Pacific Northwest, Germany and England. New Zealand is another fairly well-known hop producer. Obviously there are some fairly substantial differences between the Sacramento region and the aforementioned places, but still, there are some benefits to growing hops around here, despite the hot climate and lack of summer rainfall.

To start with, hops take up very little space. A hop vine grows best when it grows upwards. They crawl up just about anything you set before them. This manner of growth means two things. First, they can be planted fairly densely. They also create shade. You could then also conclude that very little water would be wasted in the watering process. There isn’t much room for evaporation and runoff doesn’t have to be a problem because you can surround hop plants with natural grasses – or better yet, grains to be grown and put in the beer as well!

Jordan Hess, a Sacramento native who has been working at Alpha Beta Hops in Ashland, Oreg. for the past two years and who has grown his own backyard hops, weighed in on the idea of Sacramento-grown hops. Hess wondered how viable it would be over a certain period of time, but also noted that things simply grow well in the Sacramento area.

“[I’m] not sure if it’s the ideal climate, but it’s kind of weird; everybody’s kind of realizing that they’re really easy to grow,” Hess said.

While he was uncertain about the success of commercial hop farms, Hess was enthusiastic about backyard hops.

“If you have them set up correctly, then they could be used for shade,” Hess explained. “You’ve got to provide the trellis and the string and they just keep growing.”

Is it possible to grow hops successfully here? Ruhstaller refers to hops as a legacy crop here in the Sacramento region, but I repeatedly find myself wondering why they disappeared in the first place.

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  • William Burg

    Sacramento grew some of the best hops in the world, over the course of more than a century. They disappeared for several reasons–most obviously, our brewing industry went into decline after Prohibition, as the beer industry was consolidated into a handful of large companies. Our only remaining brewery was Buffalo, and they weren’t big enough to compete anymore.

    Second, the fields that grew hops were turned into suburbs as the city and region grew. After World War II especially, the children of Sacramento’s farm families subdivided the fields that grew hops, grapes and other products, and harvested a final crop of suburban homes and shopping centers.

    Finally, the highway systems we built during the same era allowed us to disconnect places from each other like never before. Workplaces became detached from homes, and producers from products, including agricultural products. That’s why so much of the Midwest is dedicated to producing little but corn, wheat and soybeans–but if you visit their supermarkets, they sell produce from northern California.

    • I remember the hop fields back when I was a kid. I first saw them on a visit to Sacramento in 1952 and they were still there when I became resident in 1958. As I recall they were still around when I got out of high school in 1963, but were starting to go away, if not gone, when I got out of the army in 1968.

  • Ryan Schauland (f.k.a. ryuns)

    Hops are super easy and super satisfying to grow. They do need a ton of water and good drainage though. They died in my clay soil last year because I couldn’t keep enough water in the soil, but I have three growing prodigiously in a half wine barrel. Still, I’ve been pleased to note that they do tolerate occasional dry soil, even in the first year (apparently second year and onwards, they’re more drought tolerant since most of their roots stay put through the winter.)

    Brew Ferment Distill sells rhizomes pretty cheaply, but it’s probably a little late this year. They usually come out in April.

    • Patricia Willers

      Wine barrels – nice idea. I’ve had pretty good luck with smart pots as well.

  • We also have about 50 centennial rhizomes in the ground at Humble Roots a West Sacramento organic farm. The deal breaker is going to be getting enough demand and enough hops planted to make a processing facility feasible. Without one we will only be able to use the local hops very close to harvest once a year. That’s cool, but there is potential for considerably more. The other deal breaker will be quality of the hops and it might take a little time to find or develop hops that like the local climate and produce qualities that are good for beer. But we love the new direction and are trying to help if even in a small way to elevating the local beer scene and local agriculture.

    • Ryan Schauland (f.k.a. ryuns)

      So we should all be waiting for a nice harvest-time, fresh hop beer from bike dog? By the way, an idea (which I stole from the brewery my brother works at in Bend) is to make a beer using hops solicited from local backyard growers. Probably just use them for dry hopping, because quality would be all over the map. And it might not be great, but oh well…all the people who contributed would want a try.

    • Patricia Willers

      Supposedly Ruhstaller’s Hop kiln is going to be made available to community brewers. Do you think that includes you guys, Bike Dog?

  • New Helvetia is also working with 2 local hop farmers. One in the Shingle Springs area, the other in Sacramento County near the delta. We expect an early season harvest with one of the growers. Additionally, we are working with a local organic farmer to grow hops here in the City of Sacramento.

    • Ryan Schauland (f.k.a. ryuns)

      Hey Dave (I assume), tip for your wild hop expedition: I found some beauties out on a bike ride on Babel Slough road in West Sac last summer/fall. Tangled among the blackberries, it was a little hazardous to get to them, but they were pretty impressive. I’ll report on my next ride. Will try to make it out for Banjo Fiddle tonight (if the delta breeze picks up by then!)

    • Patricia Willers

      Nice tip! And so poetic – “tangled among the blackberries”

  • M@ Urquhart

    Another use for Hops is as a ‘hop bine’ (or hop vines) – they make a lovely decorative drape, cut as a 10 foot length and last (stay green) for two to three months. Popular in Britain, I’ve never encountered them here.

  • Ryan, wild hops AND blackberries? I want to go to there.
    Banjo Fiddle in the Courtyard Biergarten, hopefully less hot with our new shade cover.

  • Kati Garner

    I love hoppy beers the best!