Unique ale produced using locally grown hops
Hop vines up to 18 feet long are harvested after they are first cut off near the ground with a machete.
In a small field adjacent to its Chico brewery, Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. grows a three-acre crop of hops that are used exclusively in one of the few "estate" beers in the world.
At Sierra Nevada, the goal is to get the hops from the field to the brewery as quickly as possible in order to preserve the oils and resins that will give the ale its full and unique flavor and aroma.
On a Monday morning in early August, each hop plant was hand cut at the base with a machete to free the runners that climb a network of cables that reach up 18 feet. These long runners were then gathered and trucked a few hundred feet back to the processing plant, where they were fed into a machine that separates out the fresh flowers that are the key to a fine brew.
By the next day, the hops that had been cut on Monday were already in barrels of the brew Sierra Nevada will market as Chico Estate Harvest Ale.
"The beer's got a much nicer floral aroma and it tastes better," said Steve Dresler, Sierra Nevada brewmaster. Dresler is enthusiastic about the difference fresher hops makes in the brew.
The field produced enough hops to brew between 70 and 80 barrels of the Chico Estate Harvest Ale last year. But this year the hops yields were much higher and Dresler expected to brew as many as 200 of the 31-gallon barrels.
"This beer is phenomenally popular when it comes out," Dresler said.
The Chico Estate Harvest Ale is so popular that work has already begun on laying the irrigation tape and putting up the cables in the adjacent vacant ground in order to expand the hop farm next year from three acres to 10 acres.
And in the relatively near future Sierra Nevada may expand its hops operation even further, with a 30- to 35-acre piece of land the firm owns on the south side of Chico. It may plant barley in that field in order to extend the locally produced ingredients in the estate beer.
But producing the barley would also require the additional expense and trouble of building a malting house.
"If we want to expand this line, hops would be the most practical because we don't have to process the hops," Dresler said.
For the time being that land is cover-cropped in clover to suppress weeds before either barley or hops are planted.
But even at just the three acres that were harvested in early August, Sierra Nevada is already the largest hops grower in the state.
Because the Sacramento Valley summers seemed to be too hot, hops production moved almost exclusively to the Northwest. The state of Washington accounts for nearly three-fourths of the nation's 38,000 acres of hops. Growers there earn an average of around $4,000 an acre for their hops.
But Sierra Nevada decided to experiment in bringing hops production back closer to their home, and brewmaster Dresler said he was pleasantly surprised by the results.
"We tried growing quite a few varieties at the beginning four years ago and dropped most of them," Dresler said. Cascade and Chinook have emerged as their main varieties, augmented by a good crop of Centennial this year.
Dresler said he is also interested in experimenting with some of the heritage varieties of hops that were more prominent decades ago, when hops was still a significant Sacramento Valley crop.
But in addition to the climate challenges that drove hops from the Sacramento Valley, Sierra Nevada also faces an urban interface issue.
The Sierra Nevada brewery and restaurant are directly west of the hops field. On the other three sides of the field are commercial and retail outlets. The urban environment is one of the reasons Sierra Nevada grows its hops organically.
"We're getting a little better with the organic stuff," Dresler said. But he acknowledges that plant pests are still having an impact on yields. The crop is subject to damage caused by mites, aphids and mildews, particularly by mites.
Because hops is a perennial, the plants will grow new sets of tall runners for harvest next summer. Some of the plants at the Chico field are already four years old, which bodes well for future yields.
"As the plants get older and we get better at growing them, our yields will go up," Dresler said.
The attitude about fresh hops at Sierra Nevada mirrors that of smaller-scale, artisan brewing.
But the small brewery that Chico native and home brewing enthusiast Ken Grossman began nearly three decades ago has grown to produce 640,000 barrels of beer a year—or nearly 20 million gallons—to become the eighth largest brewery in the country.
The firm could not even consider going into farming on the scale needed to produce the 450,000 pounds of hops it uses each year, he said. The Cascade and Centennial hops used in all of the Harvest Ales are shipped wet from the Yakima Valley to the brewery in Chico on harvest day.
And Sierra Nevada goes to the expense of flying in the New Zealand hops varieties that are used in the new Southern Hemisphere Harvest ales to ensure the freshest hops possible.
(Bob Johnson is a reporter in Magalia. He may be contacted at email@example.com.)
Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.