Hops, if you'll pardon the easy pun, are hopping around here. It's been a challenging summer for growing something that requires as much attention as hop vines—harvests across the region are taking place a good week or two earlier than usual this year. But the hopes are still flowing, and local brewers can't get enough of them.
"We've had some stuff shoot up real early," said Miles Wilhelm, who runs the Smith Rock Hop Farm east of Terrebonne with his father Jim. "There's been weeds to deal with, and I think we may have had some spider mites as well in this second year. I have a yard of 900 plants, and each of them seem to be ready at their own schedule. It's very interesting to see. But there's been no aphids and no mildew, so that's been great."
Hop growing in Oregon used to be the exclusive domain of the Willamette Valley, the second-largest region for what's arguably the most rockstar ingredient in your typical pint of Northwest ale. That changed in 2010 with the launch of Tumalo Hops and now extends out to places like Cascade Hop Farm in Redmond and Flying Pig Hops, also in Terrebonne. (This in addition to the small set of vines Worthy Brewing has up next to their brewpub, which also saw its harvest day last week.)
What's the big deal about local hops? It's more than just another feel-good "buy local" movement—with the yearly harvest comes a torrent of fresh-hop beers made from hops are at their peak of freshness, bursting with aroma from rhizome to rhizome. The Northwest leads the world in the production of these tasty seasonals, and the alert drinker can try dozens upon dozens of them at the Fresh Hop Ale Festival, held in Hood River on October 3.
In Wilhelm's case, his harvest last weekend—where he and his friends hand-picked the hops from 900 Cascade and Centennial hop plants—was attended by Wild Ride Brew owner Paul Bergeman, who immediately took the entire Cascade hop output and drove it back to Redmond. There, within 15 minutes of the harvest, Bergeman began brewing with the crop at his brewery, starting work on a 20-barrel batch that should be out within the next couple weeks across Oregon. ("There's nothing more gratifying than seeing that," Wilhelm said.)
Central Oregon may still be small potatoes compared to the Willamette hop farms, but growth is almost sure to follow the local demand. Smith Rock Hop Farm is raring to help out, despite their crop falling below expectations quantity-wise in this dry summer. "We've been busy building these huge trellises and tying up 1800 ropes by hand," he noted, "when we should have been looking more closely and taking better care of the plants themselves. We should be able to baby all these plants next year."