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Getting Hopped Up—Again

The craft beer boom brings a quiet but triumphant return to hop growing in Sonoma County

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It is conceded that Sonoma County produces the finest quality of hops grown on the Pacific Coast. While the yield is not so heavy as in some other sections of the State, there is more lupulin and a stronger aroma in the Sonoma County product, which brings from one cent to two cents per pound more money in the market.

—Sunset Magazine Homeseekers' Bureau, 1915

By the time we arrive, the pickers have been at work for hours. A worn, construction-yellow backhoe loader silently blocks one of the two driveways leading into Carneros Brewing Co. in Sonoma, its scoop reaching up 10 feet into a curtain of green. Turning into the second of the brewery's inlets, we spot three of the pickers (family and friends of the company owners) walking amid aisles of 20-foot-high trellises, slowly filling their buckets.

Hops are one of the four core ingredients in modern beer production, in addition to malted barley, yeast and water. For the uninitiated, they resemble small upside-down artichokes, or soft green pine cones. To beer cognoscenti, they're essentially squishy buds of awesome. All told, they're ultimately the flowers (or "cones") of the vinelike perennial Humulus lupulus.

Essentially, we're witnessing one of the earliest stages of beer making, and one that, from a wider angle, has been part of this region's agronomic makeup for around 150 years.

And yet today, despite the unchecked craft-beer boom, and despite the increased ubiquity of farm-to-table this and locavore-minded that—even despite the fact that certain folks (right here) will occasionally stand outside of Russian River Brewing Co. for hours awaiting what's ultimately a mouthful of hops—the actual epicenter of American hop production has long since shifted elsewhere. To understand why, exactly, requires first going back to a time when hops outpaced even grapes as a dominant crop in Sonoma County.

Crop Rotation

We've come to Carneros Brewing Co., in particular because this is about as close to the hop-growing heritage of Sonoma County as one can get. As the craft-beer industry continues to grow, an increasingly large percentage of North Bay breweries are cultivating their own small sub-acreage of hops, but these are typically used immediately—in a single batch or two of beer—upon harvest.

Freshly picked hops, with their high water content, tend to go south within 24 hours if they aren't dried or tossed into a brew kettle, and overall only miniscule amounts are used fresh. (In the case of Carneros, theirs will actually be dried and pelletized for use throughout the year.)

While Washington, Oregon and Idaho produce the vast majority of commercial hops grown in the United States today (again, most of which are dried), Sonoma County was a significant hop-producing region as recently as 60 years back. Vestiges of our area's earlier hop industry can be found in the abandoned kilns seen alongside the backroads of Sonoma County, the Walters Ranch Hop Kiln (dating back to 1905) that now serves as the tasting room for HKG Estate Wines in Healdsburg and in the hop yard of the Windsor Historical Society, where hops engendered from 70-plus-year-old Sonoma County bines grow.

A few New England states, plus scattered plots in Wisconsin, were the key U.S. hop growers around the mid-1800s, before production (like the population) drifted westward. At the heart of that shift was Northern California, particularly Sacramento and its surroundings, with Sonoma, Mendocino and Yuba counties following suit. Whole families would camp in the fields during harvest. Horse-drawn carts would pass carrying 15-foot stacks of hop bales.

For the curious, Tinged with Gold: Hop Culture in the United States by Michael A. Tomlan (kindly lent to me by Moonlight Brewing's Brian Hunt) has proven to be an exceptional resource on the subject. Tomlan reports: "From 1915 until 1922 California was the leading hop-producing state in the Union, responsible for over 50 [percent] of the total U.S. production in some years; the state's acreage peaked in 1916." As to the reason for this ascent, Tomlan writes that "whereas in the East or in England, growers might complain that the crop never fully matured from lack of sunshine, too much rain, or mildew, in California this never seemed to be the case."

Prohibition wasn't especially kind to U.S. hop growers, obliging them to rely on international markets. California, in particular, took a major acreage hit. Sonoma County was one of a few to recover afterward, peaking with the 1945 harvest, when about 25,000 bales generated $2.6 million. It wouldn't last for long.

A further major setback occurred with the 1948 harvest, which saw an unhelpful triad of hop mildew, aphid infestation and weak market conditions (as highlighted by the Sonoma County Department of Agriculture's annual harvest report). Production, with basically the same acreage as the preceding year, dropped by nearly 40 percent.

The industry would again temporarily recover in the next few years, even seeing a slight uptick in acreage overall. Nineteen fifty-one, however, brought cold weather and lower yields, and the following year's report read: "Hop producers had a disastrous year. Prices were lower; sixty-five percent of the crop was harvested under [unfavorable terms]; and, in addition, considerable acreage was abandoned. On the other hand, hay growers had an excellent year with good yields and prices."

Hay, sadly, is for horses.

Acres once allocated to hop production transitioned to crops of green beans and Fordhook lima beans (the latter proving to be an almost-immediate bust). Others returned to orchards, or grapes. Some of the silenced hop kilns, according to Tomlan, "turned into berry, fruit, or fish dryers." By 1961, Sonoma County harvest reports ceased mentioning hop operations altogether.

Return Growth

Carneros just opened this summer, but this is already its third hop harvest. Brewmaster Jesus Ceja, an exceptionally experienced brewer with 15 years at Anheuser-Busch (and, post-merger, Anheuser-Busch InBev), had been using earlier harvests for his test batches. The brewery launched with five core beers in its lineup—a pilsner, an amber ale, both a regular and black IPA, and (a personal highlight) a German-style Hefeweizen—all of which use some of these estate-grown hops. Carneros' plants will provide about 30 percent of the brewery's annual requirement.

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Carneros currently grows four different varieties of hops: Tomahawk (used for its potent bitterness), Cascade (another American type, renowned for its citrusy flavors and aromatics), plus Hallertau and Saaz (two classic European varieties, more on the spicy-earthy side of the spectrum). Beneath the shade of Carneros' outside pouring station—seriously, the place is pretty darn plush for a small brewery—I ask Ceja how he can tell them apart. Even to someone who writes about beer for a living, they all look like squishy green pinecones to me.

It's a matter of both sight and smell. I hand Ceja the hop that I'm holding, which he takes in two fingers and briefly inspects, before putting it up to his nose to be sure. "This is Saaz," he replies, without hesitation. Noting the "it still looks like a pinecone" expression on my face, he adds that this one has more of a three-dimensional shape to it than, say, the tighter-clustered Tomahawk. Then there's the proportion of aromatics: vegetal notes, grassiness, slight citrus.

I take the hop in question over to where my friends have congregated, halving it with my fingernails. It's not the first time I've sliced open a hop, but every time it's like looking in on a tiny, hidden world. Or at least a tiny hidden apartment complex. Discrete pockets along both sides of the hop's inner stem house what appears to be pollen but in fact are the lupulin glands; i.e., the reason hops matter. The alpha and beta acids stored within the glands are responsible, after they're boiled, for the hops' main bittering contribution to beer, while the hop oils (also resident in the lupulin glands) contribute myriad flavors and aromas—depending on the variety, everything from pithy grapefruit to Sauvignon Blanc to spearmint. Soft yellow smudges from the lupulin dot my notebook, as if I've been cooking with saffron.

Our party heads back to one of the pergola-covered tables in Carneros' garden, unpacking a picnic lunch and sipping cold pints of Jefeweizen and Negra IPA. We can see the pickers as they slowly make their way down the rows, handfuls of hops disappearing into buckets. The bines (with a b), as they climb the trellises—via scratchy hairs and robust stems, differently than a true vine would—begin to slacken. With luck, the pickers will pull 500 pounds again this year.

Relative to most other breweries growing hops locally, that's huge. Compared to commercial hop-growing operations farther north, however, it's barely a drop in the bucket. Though North Bay production today tends to be on a gentle upswing, there's minimal chance of a return to the huge volume of Sonoma County's heyday. Kilns are expensive (even Carneros simply dries its hops in the open air, using ventilation efforts instead of a full-blown hop kiln), and breweries aren't particularly inclined to get into the hop-growing business when their focus should be on the final outcome.

But these are secondary points. Economic force, both in terms of grapes here or economies-of-scale elsewhere, has shifted around enormously in the decades since.

One really can't complain about the quality of hops from large-scale, mechanized enterprises in the Pacific Northwest, nor about those companies' cultivation and research programs, which introduce expressive new varieties each year. But we're blessed with a surplus of great local breweries that, because their small-scale harvests never see a kiln, go all out in producing wet-hop beers at harvest, which afford a freshness and aromatic quality that one simply doesn't get from dried hops. We've rounded up as many as we could in the sidebar.

Once a year, at least, it almost feels like the hop industry never left.

HARVEST BEER TOURING

A who's-who and where-from guide to local wet-hop beers

GLOBETROTTER Christer Blom, from Sweden, visits Carneros Brewing Co. - ANNELIESE SCHMIDT
  • Anneliese Schmidt
  • GLOBETROTTER Christer Blom, from Sweden, visits Carneros Brewing Co.

In line with the annual harvest, many local breweries create special beers made from freshly picked hops. These undried "wet" hops retain volatile flavor and aromatic compounds that would otherwise be lost during the kilning process, taking beers in surprising new directions.

Sonoma County

At the brewpub, Russian River Brewing Co. will soon pour its annual HopTime Harvest ale, brewed with 100 percent wet hops from Hops-Meister farm in Lake County. These hops go from the vine and into the kettle in a few hours. "Yields on this beer are very poor," relates Russian River's brewmaster Vinnie Cilurzo, "but the aromas and flavors that come from this beer are like no other. There are so many unique characteristics that come from wet hops."

On land near the outskirts of Sebastopol, Moonlight Brewing's Brian Hunt grows assertive varieties like Cascade, nugget, Chinook and cluster—the lattermost being descended from one of the oldest hop varieties grown in the United States. (Early cluster varieties figured heavily in California's historical production as well, long before the advent of the citrus-heavy American varieties common today.) While details weren't available before press, I hope to see Moonlight's Homegrown again this year.

Petaluma's small-scale HenHouse Brewing currently partners with Allstar Organics down in Nicasio to grow organic Cascade hops. While they won't officially release a wet-hop beer this year (an estate wet-hop ESB and wet-hop pale are slated to go into production in 2014), HenHouse will be doing a very small—like, one-keg small—batch of an experimental wet-hop Berliner Weisse, to be released at an undisclosed bar in Petaluma. (I have a guess.)

Omnipresent Lagunitas will be overnighting wet hops from Washington's Yakima region to go into a TBD wet-hop ale. The batch will be divvied up between its own TapRoom and various wet-hop-focused festivals around the country. Owner Tony Magee also keeps a small garden of hops in the community of Marshall, in Marin, slated to go into a separate release.

Also in Petaluma, Dempsey's uses hops grown on its biodynamic Red Rooster Ranch for creating the 707 Wet Hop pale ale, to be released around mid-September. It will be one of the few local wet-hop beers to be bottled and available throughout Sonoma County.

The newly opened Woodfour Brewing works with both a local Sebastopol farmer as well as another in Mendocino County for its wet-hop needs. Brewer Seth Wood states that Woodfour will actually be making two or three wet-hop beers for the pub, using a single hop type for each. "We plan to serve the beers as a wet-hop flight in our restaurant," reports Wood, "so people can explore the beers side by side." These beers should be released around late September.

Heading north, Ruth McGowan's Brewpub in Cloverdale has procured Sterling and Columbus hops from a local farmer. These have gone into a Belgian-style tripel, Mighty Shillelagh, available on-site now.

Healdsburg's Bear Republic has three-quarters of an acre of citrusy Cascade and Chinook hops growing in Dry Creek Valley, managed by the Enzenauer family. These will head into Grandpa's Homegrown, honoring Phil Enzenauer for his commitment to Sonoma County hop cultivation. Look for this latest Homegrown release in late September, early October.

Old Redwood Brewing in Windsor will brew a harvest ale using hops from two different locations. The first is its fully established hop field in southwest Windsor, which yields about a hundred pounds annually. The second, interestingly, is run by the Windsor Historical Society, which tends a field of hops propagated from nearly century-old vines in the Russian River Valley. The beer will be available to Old Redwood's beer club members (around mid-October) and in limited samples to the general public through the brewery's tasting room in Windsor.

Santa Rosa's Fogbelt Brewing Co., opening soon, will produce a number of beers with hops grown in Healdsburg and Sonoma (see sidebar).

Marin County

While Marin Brewing doesn't grow its own hops or produce any dedicated fresh-hop beers, brewmaster Arne Johnson does plan to harvest some Sonoma County hops and add them into Marin's cask-conditioned IPA. "For me," Johnson reflects, "this is the best way to showcase wet and wild hops."

Napa County

Downtown Joe's had its Hay Ride Harvest on tap as of late August. It's Joe's seventh year brewing a wet-hop beer, but its first using California hops. The exact source? An undisclosed farmer situated perhaps two hours east of the brewery.—Ken Weaver

PICK OF THE VINE

Santa Rosa's hop-harvesting pioneer, Florian Dauenhauer

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Even though large-scale hop production left Sonoma County long ago, Santa Rosa remains headquarters for the pioneering company that built the first automated hop-picking machine.

Florian Dauenhauer, who moved to Santa Rosa from Wisconsin at age 14, first conceived the machine in 1940 when workers in his hop field went on strike. Seventy-three years later, the Dauenhauer Manufacturing Company is still run by Tom Frazer, Dauenhauer's grandson, in Santa Rosa, with the business' main service and retail center located in hop-heavy Toppenish, Wash.

"Over 90 percent of the hops grown commercially in the U.S.A. use our equipment," boasts Frazer, explaining that Yakima is by far the largest hop-growing region in the United States, with Oregon's Willamette Valley and parts of Idaho hosting farms in excess of 2,000 acres. "Since the big price runup in 2008," says Frazer, "many growers have been attracted to very small-scale hop farming in nontraditional areas such as Lake County, Wisconsin, Colorado and Michigan."

Frazer has nothing but positive things to say about Sonoma County's brewing scene. "Everyone knows Vinnie and Natalie [Cilurzo] at Russian River Brewing and Tony [Magee] at Lagunitas. They truly are leaders in the craft-brewing world. It's really cool that Sonoma County and its creative residents are making such an impression on the minds of craft beer enthusiasts."

The city recognized Dauenhauer by naming a new park behind the fairgrounds Dauenhauer Park (the playground is shaped like hop kilns), on the former site of Dauenhauer's ranch. But does Dauenhauer sell any equipment in his home county, which once was such a hop-growing mecca? "There are no hops commercially grown," says Frazer, "that I'm aware of, in Sonoma County."

For the smaller operations outlined elsewhere in this issue, hops are picked by hand. But should some enterprising grower decide to bring back large-scale hop production in Sonoma County, they'll likely have to call up the Dauenhauer Manufacturing Company.

"The hop harvester is indispensable," says Frazer. "There is no way to be commercially viable without a significant level of mechanization today."—Nicolas Grizzle

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