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.
The average age of a farmer in the United States is 57. What does this mean for the hop industry? As those 57-year-olds retire, they have few options. If their younger generations aren’t interested in taking on the family farm, they typically have to sell it. That leads to consolidation which means bigger and bigger farms, potentially eliminating the crafty artisan nature of hop farming that we so adore. On the other side of the equation are a growing number of aspiring young farmers who aren’t able to get into farming due to the prohibitive cost of land and the inability to find start-up capital. The National Young Farmers Coalition is doing some great work to build community around farming and break down the barriers to entry through policy work. We (heart) National Young Farmers Coalition big time!
That an organic hop field produces (at most) half the amount of hops of a non-organic hop field is something we find hard to swallow. This means that purchasing organic hops requires twice the amount of land and resources to be cultivated, which is not so sustainable when that land could otherwise remain wild. And, along with the required land, the cost is also doubling. Our friends at the Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF) believe that, with more funding of research, we can find approaches to organic farming that create just as much yield as conventional, pesticide & synthetic fertilizer-based farming. Keep in mind that while organic certification does fantastic work to ensure the elimination of synthetic elements in our food and soils, leading to healthier humans and stronger ecosystems, it doesn’t address other environmental issues like greenhouse gas emissions.
We are also quite fond of Salmon Safe Certification which gives farmers guidance on the inputs they are allowed to use in an effort to preserve the health of the waterways in the Northwest.
Hops rely heavily on light to produce healthy yields. This makes farming a bit difficult in areas of the US that don’t have as much summer light as the Northwest. Still, a few varieties are expected to be able to overcome this challenge and so a few states are currently working on starting up a hop movement. Hops are perennials, requiring 3 years to fully mature, and they also demand the implementation of a trellis system to support the 18-foot tall vines. This translates into big up-front costs for new hop farms. Another hurdle to overcome in a new hop market is processing equipment. Hops have only a short window to be harvested and require specific processing machines to remove the flower from the vine. From there, the hop needs to dry in a kiln and, for most breweries, be ground down to a powder and pressed into pellet form. If a hop farmer does not have access to all of this equipment, it won’t make much sense to grow hops. If no hop farms exist, it won’t make much sense to build a processing facility. Here we get into a chicken and egg story.
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.
As you may know, to our dismay, we had to cancel our one certified organic beer, Mothership Wit. Despite its gold medal from the Great American Beer Festival, the beer didn’t seem to grab the market as strongly as we hoped and sales were a little blah. Also, it was disheartening that the cost of Organic beer ingredients were more than twice those which were conventional. The discontinuation of our organic beer, however, doesn’t mean we throw our hands in the air and give up on sustainable barley. We are playing around with ideas to affect change in the industry in more indirect ways.
We actually found that some of the barley farmers that grow for our maltsters were getting pretty creative. Some of them are working with experts to experiment with integrated pest management, an approach to pest control that reduces the need for pesticides. We even ran into some farmers that had eliminated the need for synthetic fertilizers completely by routing their tractor exhaust into the seed planter, inoculating the seed with a dose of carbon. This saves them a significant amount of money each year.
A couple of years ago, the National Barley Growers Association decided to reverse their long-held opposition to genetically-engineered (GE) barley, also referred to as “GMO.” Barley acreage decreased sharply over recent years as farmers switched their fields over to GE crops like corn, soy, canola, and now wheat. The decision for barley farmers to open the door to GE crops came from an understandable fear of losing too many farmers to GE crops. Check out New Belgium’s statement below on the topic of GE barley.
As a brewer, New Belgium needs barley to be competitive with other crops that (unlike barley) are genetically engineered so that growers will continue to provide reliable, affordable sources of barley malt. We understand the pressure on farmers to increase yields and decrease risk. Therefore, we realize that many are looking to the technology of genetic engineering to keep barley an economically viable crop. However, New Belgium believes the effects of genetically engineered crops on human health, ecological impact, and long-term agricultural viability are not yet fully understood. While no commercially available genetically engineered barley varieties are available in North America at this time, this may change in the future. We want to preserve a choice for New Belgium and others who wish to source non-genetically engineered ingredients. Likewise, we believe consumers have a right to know if any product they consume contains genetically engineered ingredients.
GE barley does not exist today, and we hope identity-preserved (non-GE) barley always remains available and affordable.
In the meantime, New Belgium is supportive of campaigns, national and state-wide, to label products containing GE ingredients so that consumers are empowered to make their own decisions.