WILDER — As craft breweries expand in Idaho and across the U.S., the hop-growing regions of Idaho, Oregon and Washington are expanding, too — to record-high levels of acreage.
Demand is up for hops, which are used in the beer-making process for bittering and adding flavors and aroma.
“It’s craft beer-driven,” said Diane Gooding, vice president of operations at Gooding Farms, a six-generation hop farm in Wilder. “U.S. craft beer has just totally revolutionized the hop industry in terms of the diversity of varieties, and the demand has greatly increased.”
In response to that demand, Idaho and Washington are expected to have record-high levels of hop acreage this year. Idaho hop farmers added about 1,000 acres of hops in 2015, bringing the total acreage of hops strung for harvest to nearly 5,000, according to a June report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Idaho is the third-largest hop-growing state and produces about 11 percent of the hops grown in the United States. Washington grows the most at more than 40,000 acres, and Oregon is second with nearly 7,000 acres, according to the USDA.
The hops grown in Idaho supply local craft breweries and major producers, such as Anheuser-Busch, alike. The 1,700-acre Elk Mountain Farm in northern Idaho has been growing hops for Anheuser-Busch for more than 28 years and is the largest contiguous hop farm in the U.S., according to the beer maker.
Nate Jackson started growing hops in Wilder in 2008 after seeing the demand and a good opportunity.
“The price of hops really spiked in ‘08, and it made it possible for my dad and I to put in 60 acres and acquire an old facility built in 1958,” he said.
The crop that first year was good enough to allow them to invest more in their operation, which has since grown to nearly 500 acres. The old facility burned down in 2012 and has been replaced with a new building and equipment to dry and package the hops.
Sockeye Brewery in Boise, which uses Jackson’s hops, is grateful for that extra acreage.
“When we started production and packaging in cans, we really needed to find a source for more hops, and Nate added some more acreage at about the right time,” said Dawn Bolen, marketing assistant at Sockeye. “... Nate’s been really instrumental in helping Sockeye grow.”
The brewery relies on Idaho hops for some of its main beers, and more than 90 percent of those hops come from the Wilder area, she said.
Jackson has carved out a niche in Idaho by growing organic hops. About a quarter of his farm is organic.
“I spent a lot of time out in the fields when we first started, and I realized we didn’t need to be spraying as much as we were,” he said. “The next year we grew without spraying, and it worked out just fine.”
Last week, Jackson planned to unleash thousands of lady bugs into his organic hops to naturally take care of pests. He also uses a drip irrigation system to efficiently water the crop.
Jackson also experiments with new varieties of hops, and Sierra Nevada Brewing Company took note of his Idaho 7 hop. It’s showcased in Sierra Nevada’s Harvest Single Hop IPA, which is part of the five-bottle 2015 Harvest series, according to the brewery. It’s described by Sierra Nevada to have complex fruity aromas of orange and apricot with “hints of black tea-like character and a pleasant fresh herbal bouquet.”
Sockeye has also used the Idaho 7 hop.
CHANGING HOP CROP
The Gooding family started growing hops in Western Oregon before moving to Southern Idaho in the 1940s, Diane Gooding said.
“We’ve really seen the ebb and flow of the market demands in the hop industry,” she said.
The farm now has 14 varieties of hops growing on 520 acres, Gooding said. When she started at the farm in 2010, they were growing only five varieties of hops.
Gooding Farms has added more varieties of aroma hops to its acreage to provide what craft breweries are looking for. Craft brewers are looking for quality hops, the price has gone up and growers have had to adapt to meet that demand.
“They’ve kind of raised the bar in terms of what they expect growers to deliver,” Gooding said. “... They’re paying for a premium product, so you have to deliver that.”
The USDA specifically identifies 13 hop varieties grown in Idaho, but there are about 1,200 acres of unidentified hop varieties growing in the state and about 70 acres of experimental varieties.
Of those identified in Idaho, most acreage is devoted to Cascade hops followed by Zeus and Citra.
Overall, hop acreage in Idaho that is strung for harvest is expected to increase by 33 percent and acres of several individual varieties were expected to increase by 40 percent or more in 2015 over 2014, according to the USDA.
In 2014, the Idaho Hop Commission was awarded a specialty crop grant to establish a central test plot for experimental hop selections. The grant totaled $68,250, according to the Idaho Department of Agriculture.