This content was originally published by The Hop Review, a digital magazine that joined the Hop Culture family in March 2020.
This piece was written by Tom White.
BONNERS FERRY, ID
If it wasn’t already obvious, Americans are in love with their hops. The venerable India Pale Ale, flagship of all hop-forward beers, accounts for one out of every four craft beers sold in this country—an astounding number that shows no sign of slowing down. We all know that hops are a vital part of every beer, and the brewer’s choice of which variety worth showcasing can define their creation. There’s perhaps nothing more important to a beer’s success than the quality of its ingredients.
Since being acquired by Anheuser-Busch InBev in 2011, Goose Island has benefited tremendously from their backer’s huge bank roll and increased resource access. ‘AB’-owned Elk Mountain Farms, just outside remote Bonners Ferry, Idaho is quite possibly the greatest of these benefits. With 1,700 acres of pristine hop growing terroir perched on the banks of the fertile Kootenay River, it’s a goldmine for any brewer fortunate enough to walk it’s fields.
LATE SUMMER HARVEST
Each year, during an intense few week period, these hops–at their ideal ripeness (“crepe-papery,” as we’re told)–are harvested by a dedicated team of farmers. And it was during this window in late August, that we had the chance to tour the hop fields, just as the 2016 harvest got underway in northern Idaho. We spent a few very hot and dusty days, and surprisingly brisk nights, on the farm just 10 miles from the Canadian border. Accompanied by farm General Manager, Ed Atkins, and several Goose Island brewers, we were tutored on the ins and outs of hop production, first hand. From their beginnings as tiny shoots in the spring, to the fully mature varietals of late summer, we witnessed the processes in place to help make sure the best hops make it into your future pint.
HOPS IN PERSPECTIVE
While Elk Mountain now supplies hops to many Anheuser-Busch brands, the 2011 acquisition of Goose Island gave new life to a farm that had fallen on tough times. Goose’s desire to showcase unique, flavorful hops has meant the farm has expanded to feature some of the most popular aroma varietals—industry stalwarts like Amarillo, Cascade, Centennial, Mt. Hood and Nugget. And aside from these many popular varietals, the farm also grows a significant amount of Saaz, which is the primary hop used in, you guessed it, Budweiser.
There was no doubt that during our tour of the hop farm, the most striking element was its sheer size. Seventeen hundred acres of hops already sounds like quite a lot on paper, but seeing it in person is, well…astounding. Each field contains countless rows of hop-laden trellis, quite literally as far as the eye can see in nearly any direction. And to prepare the trellises each spring, they utilize 12,600 miles of twine to string up each and every bine (not to be mistaken for their vine cousins which use tendrils to climb). More astonishing than the length of twine used, is that they are all strung by hand. All of the estimated 3 million individual hop bines are set sans-machine. If there ever was a job that called for beer as reward…
Any fan of brewing will tell you, nothing can quite describe the aroma of freshly picked hops. And being amongst their harvest, you experience that sensation, a thousand-fold. Searching out that perfect cone, plucking it from the bine, breaking it open, and rubbing it between your hands, as your breath in is a near religious experience for any beer geek. That distinctly oily, sticky residue that exudes floral and citrusy aromas immediately prompted a visual list of our favorite pale ales from back in Chicago. I’m only guessing, but I imagine touring a yeast lab doesn’t quite have the same effect.
With the 2016 hop harvest officially under way, we watched as several from Elk Mountain Farms began the daunting process of stripping the hops from each trellis row. A task that could only be accomplished using their towering two-story combines–each a completely custom built beast of a machine.
After gathering our pick of fresh hops from around the farm, we marched on to the processing facilities. These huge warehouses are home to all of the, simply put, intimidating machinery. These pieces of equipment are responsible for sifting, removing debris, drying, and conveying the selected cones for packaging. All of this is done via a network of inclines, belts and pulleys that make up arguably the coolest looking Rube Goldberg of a beer-making machine. The fresh hops make their way up, around, and through the massive facility, before they’re bailed, pelletized off-site or sent directly to the brewery.
What better way to celebrate the hop harvest, than with…beer? Not only were plenty of Goose Island favorites at the ready, but we also enjoyed a hand in crafting a unique (very) small batch beer to christen the 2016 hop gathering. Capping off a day in the fields, we quickly shifted gears back to the brewing process, as we joined in on a collaborative brew with Goose Island lead brewer Keith Gabbett and fellow brewer Quinn Fuechsl.
With no particular recipe to go on, the brew process largely relied on the popular opinion as to which of the day’s picked hops would work best. Keith and Quinn were great sports and open to try anything, despite a somewhat temperamental burner, and the input of several mediocre (former) hobby brewers. We’re betting it had been quite a while since these two had worked a homebrew setup, especially one perched amidst a ridge in remote Idaho. In the end, it was an entertaining exercise, no doubt–even if not the most fruitful. We’re not planning to see this unnamed pale ale recipe hit the market anytime soon. But, we’re still anticipating the chance to taste its results, nonetheless. Ask us how it faired next time you see us.
With our time at the remote farm coming to a close, we enjoyed a final evening with the Elk Mountain Farms & Goose Island crew, for a food and beer pairing like no other. A candle-lit, five-course dinner amongst the hop bines proved the ultimate reward, for a harvest in which we really did little more than admire. Figuring we shouldn’t question what we did to deserve such an invitation, we quickly got to what we do best–eating and drinking. The dishes were prepared by Michelin rated chef, Jeremy Hansen, of Santé in nearby Spokane, Washington. And each course was complemented by a Goose Island speciality brew, each selected by a particular member of the GI team.
Prior to the Idaho visit, we were already well acquainted with what different varieties of hops look like. How they smell. And certainly their trademark effects on beer styles. But there’s something so entirely unique about seeing the source of beer’s most important ingredient, at the bine. The incredible hard work and dedication from Ed and his team at Elk Mountain Farms gave us a huge appreciation for the effort that goes into every beer before it even gets to the brewer (and the five-course dinner didn’t hurt either).
A visit to a hop farm during harvest, especially of such scale, is a perception altering experience. And it’s something every fan of that delicious, hoppy beverage we know so well needs to add to their calendar. The effort that goes into sourcing these coveted cones is truly indescribable–no matter how well we try to convey its process or how many photos we show. Hats off to these incredible farmers who make it all happen.
And in the spring, they’ll be at it again–setting over 3 million individual hop twine trellises. Just remember this the next time you reach for your Goose Island, or any of your beers for that matter.