Ever wonder what gives a beer its taste? It’s hops! What are these? Hops are the flowers, or cones, of the hop plant (Humulus Lupulus) and one of the basic ingredients in beer. In brewing, hops are used primarily as a bittering, flavoring, and stability agent. Hops also help beer retain its head of foam and are a key ingredient in a beer’s flavor and aroma. Brewers also use hops because they provide a bitter counterpoint to the sweet malts in beer.
Most hop farms in the U.S. are family-run and independently owned. Most American hops are grown in the Pacific Northwest States of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho, where hop plants thrive on long hot summers and cold winters. The famous Yakima Valley in Washington accounts for just under 75% of the U.S. domestic industry.
Hops are considered a type of bine, a plant that grows clockwise and climbs by using its shoot alone. They usually grow on trellises that are 5.5 meters high. It takes about three years for a hop plant to reach its full maturity. The Pacific Northwest typically produces about 2,000 pounds (~907 kg) of dried hop cones per year on mature hop yards. Hops are typically sold in 200-pound (~91 kg) bales. Depending on the recipe, a bale can yield between 135-800 barrels of beer, which are about 117 liters each… that’s up nearly 93,878 liters of beer!
Americans have been growing hops since early colonial times, with the first U.S. commercial hop garden established in 1648 to supply a brewery in the Massachusetts Bay settlement. Over the next 150 years, hop production spread throughout New England. By the mid-1800s, New York controlled the largest acreage of hops, reaching its peak production in the late-1800s. New growers then began to pop up on the Pacific coast, soon surpassing their East Coast counterparts. When Prohibition began in the United States coupled with a few mildew outbreaks, production in New England came to a close. The end of Prohibition in 1933 and the Pacific Northwest’s favorable climate, fertile soil, and water availability led to a boom in production.
There are over 75 different varieties of hops grown in the United States. These varieties have a wide range of aromas that produce strong flavor profiles. Aromas include fruity, citrus, tobacco/ earthy, pine, stone fruit, floral, cedar, grassy, tropical fruit, spicy, herbal, and a combination of the above! What’s more, hop breeding programs in the U.S. are ensuring that new varieties of hops are constantly in development, leading not only to new aromas, but increased disease and pest resistance.
The increasing popularity of craft beers has pushed U.S. hop innovation. Beer brewers from around the world turn to hops produced in the United States for their wide variety of aromas, innovative flavor profiles, and consistency.
Growing and Harvesting
Hops are usually propagated from rootstock and planted in the spring. Farmers take soil samples from each hop yard to ensure the highest quality and best yields. They do this by assessing the balance of nutrients in the soil throughout the growing season. Many U.S. hop growers use integrated pest management techniques, eliminating the need to use crop protection products to address issues they used to face. In early April, the twinning process begins.
Farmers use tractor-drawn elevated platforms to tie the twine to overhead trellis wires. Then, the farmers wrap the hop shoots in a clockwise direction around the twine, in a process known as training. This begins the hops journey to the top of the trellis. Over the summer, the farmers maintain the crops through irrigation, weeding, and pest control. Each variety of hop reaches its peak maturity at different times. The harvesting process takes place starting in August and continues through early October.