Many Craft Brewers are Shifting to Locally Sourced Hops For a True Taste of Home
When you think of your city, there are doubtless many things that come to mind. The climate, your family, the house you call your home, and countless other things are tangible qualities, but there are infinitely more intangibles - things that you can’t quite put your finger on, yet communicate the overall feel of the place. The scent of the town after you’ve been away or the aroma from nearby fields, if you’re lucky enough to live where farms aren’t too far off. As a craft brewer, you contribute to that sense of place as well. To many of your fellow neighbors, the taste of one of your beers is precisely that. It’s a silent ambassador for everything that you call home. Historically, beers have always represented that. From the earliest days of brewing, in the trappist ales of forgotten times, local ingredients, (including even the yeast in the air), all contributed to that distinctive flavor. In a time before pH test strips and computer temperature controls, brewers didn’t so much create a beer as they conjured it, summoned it, and tried to tame that magic in a bottle.
Now many craft brewers, long the champions of artisanal methods and unique ingredients, are returning to some of those same ideas. One such way is by sourcing hops from as nearby as possible, creating brews that are as unique as the hills that they sprang from, and a true reflection of the local terroir. Where many restaurants may call it “farm to fork”, consider the brewers equivalent: “bine to pint”, if you will.
Where the “Wild” Hops Grow: Finding Local Sources
In America, the majority of hops farms are typically in the Pacific NorthWest. While this is still true, in recent years more and more farmers across the nation have begun to attempt to grow hops in their various locales, trying different varieties that while struggling in the balmy PNW, thrive in the different climates offered all over. Before prohibition, California was a near prolific hop producer, until shifting its focus to more legally lucrative efforts in the 1930’s. Now many farmers, one by one, are taking their hand at hops farming, at first with the classically Northern varieties, like Glacier, Willamette, and Cascade, but eventually finding varieties that leap up the trellis in their local clime. In Marin County, CA, Fuggle and Nugget, among others, have proven successful. Farther South, in California’s arid San Joaquin Valley, Centennial and Magnum have been grown in large scales. In Florida, about as far as one can get from Oregon and Washington (geographically and meteorologically), hops are being grown that, due to the humid climate and early spring, ripen months earlier than their Northern cousins. And 14 other states have budding hops farms, from Indiana, up to Michigan, and even Texas! There are some great resources online to get in touch with local hops farmers, such as the Nor Cal Hop Growers Alliance in California, and the Michigan Hop Alliance up North. Regardless of where you are, there’s a good chance that a little bit of Googling can put you in touch with some fresh, local hops growers excited to collaborate on your next brew.
Local Hops Pros and Cons
One of the immediate advantages of using locally grown hops is the freshness. In order to call a beer “fresh hop”, the hops themselves shouldn’t have been off the bine for any longer than 48 hours, with less than a day old being ideal. This obviously becomes harder to accomplish the farther away your hops supply comes from, so having a local grower is the best way to accomplish this. Timing everything just right can be tricky, which is alleviated by a nearby hops farm as well. With a local farm, you can jump in your truck, head out to the trellises and actually pull some down, roll them in your fingers, and get a true feel for their characteristics right then and there. That’s something that can’t be replicated any other way, regardless of how good a relationship you may have with a hops supplier halfway across the country. The resulting flavors and aromas that wet hops contribute to a beer, even when added in small amounts late in the brewing process, can make a tremendous difference on your final brew, adding a distinctive taste of the region. However, wet hops can also be temperamental, and adding just the right amount can be more akin to art than following a simple recipe. But hey, you’re a brewer! That’s precisely why you got into this business, right?
Another advantage of using local hops is brewing with the knowledge that you are supporting the local economy, and in doing so, helping to give back to your community. With the “locavore” and “farm to fork” movement showing no signs of waning, the more locally sourced small batch ingredients you can add to your recipes, the more interest it will garner from locals, and conversely, it will also attract more interest from non-locals too, usually adventurous craft-brew enthusiasts looking to try something that they haven’t had before. Your use of local ingredients becomes a delicious combination they can claim discovery of when trading pints with friends. Regardless, if you can source at least a portion of your hops bill locally, it is an overall benefit to your brewery, the community, and it can make a uniquely tasty beer, too.
Be a Hometown Hops Hero
While finding local wet hops may be a little more difficult than tracking down a mail order sack of pellets, the end result makes up for the headache. Once added to your recipe, the resulting beer can become more than just a delicious pint, but something uniquely representative of your area, and by extension, of you. You will be joining in the long noble line of trappist monks, using the ingredients provided by the land to create a pint of a place - Something intangible. And like an emotion, a great song, or a sunset watched from a local peak, these intangibles are oftentimes precisely what life is made of.
A noble calling, indeed.