Hops and barley
Did you know the Pacific Northwest grows 95% of all U.S. hops? Why? Because these 18-foot high perennial vines adore the long summer days found in higher latitudes, and, thus, Washington, Oregon and Idaho are hop mecca for us Americans. But other states (like our beloved Colorado!) are valiantly working to build a hop industry and we’re definitely cheering them on. So how do we ensure that we are getting sustainably grown quality hops to brew world class beer?
In 2010, a group of Craft brewers came together and formed the Hop Quality Group. We hired one of the smartest hop experts in the country, Val Peacock, and started our own journey towards hop connoisseurship. Val introduced us to the small family farmers and taught us a thing or ten about the delicate life of hops before they end up in our beers. We happily found hop farmers to be kindred souls to Craft brewers. They are hard-working, creative artisans who quite clearly have heart and soul in mind as they run their family business.
The passion and love with which these multi-generation hop farmers work is easy to see when visiting their land and when experiencing the aromatic crops that come from it. Most farmers are exploring innovative approaches to better honor nature in their farming practices. Several are working with USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Services to learn about integrated pest management so they can plant cover crops that attract beneficial insects rather than using more pesticide, and a few are even becoming certified by Salmon Safe. You can even find one or two organic hop fields in the Northwest.
Hops, hopes, and challenges: What's next?
The Rocky Mountain West is to barley like Silicon Valley is to information technology… or like New York to fashion. And don’t you go thinking it’s any less glamorous! Have you ever been to the Sip-n-Dip in Great Falls, Montana? Glitz & glamour come in many different faces, folks.
Barley likes cool spring nights, which are the norm in the arid plains just east of the Rocky Mountains. Colorado, Montana, and Alberta, Canada give life to most of the barley produced in the United States for brewers. This barley can be grown in irrigated fields utilizing diverted snowmelt water or without irrigation, utilizing best practices of dryland farming. Our barley comes from a mixture of the two, as they both have benefits to becoming quality brewing ingredients, and this also provides us a bit of security depending on varying weather patterns in a given year.
Barley is cool and all, but breweries don’t buy barley. We buy malt.
Once the barley is harvested at the end of the season, farmers sell their crops to “maltsters” who use the barley to make malt. (Maltsters! That’s like a one-word tongue twister. Say “maltsters” 10 times!) So we like maltsters *a lot*. They turn barley starches into barley sugars, which is really important because yeast wants to eat sugars. And we tend to give the yeast whatever it wants because yeast turns sugars into alcohol & CO2 (a.k.a. beer!).
When we measured the greenhouse gas emissions of our beer the first time, we were surprised to see that barley farming was one of the highest contributors to the overall footprint. Malting was significant as well. Since then, we have been visiting our suppliers (the Maltsters!) and a handful of their barley farmers to better understand the opportunities out there to reduce the impact barley farming & malting have on our environment. Check out this GHG Accounting report for barley and hops.
Barley: What's next?