Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Talking with Landon Friend of the California Hops Grower Association about the Growth of California Hops

Landon Friend is thumbs up on California hops
(Binary Hops photo)
When you think of hops in America, it's likely you don't think of California.  You probably think of the Pacific Northwest since the states of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho account for 95% of our nations hop acreage. California's hop acreage is estimated at a minuscule 130 acres, but that figure increased 53% over last year a for a number of reasons we'll get to shortly, and figures to grow in similarly dramatic fashion in the coming years.

To discuss the small, but fast growing California hop industry and what it means for beer in California, I spoke with Landon Friend, a hop farmer, partner in Binary Hops and organizer of the California Hops Grower Association. Below is an edited version of that interview and in a couple places, I've added background information on hops in italics I thought was needed to make Landon's answers more understandable.

What does the California Hop Grower Association do?

It’s changed from its inception two years ago.  At first, we were mostly sharing battle scars, talking about what was working, what wasn’t working.  What’s emerged is that we realized we had a lot of shared resources we could draw upon, shared knowledge, shared equipment that we could all use.

Right now, there are about 15 hop growers statewide but that number is growing.  Every month, I get at least a couple calls or e-mails from new growers or new breweries looking for resources. Since we’ve grown from farms ranging as far north as Chico and as far south as San Diego, it’s getting harder to share equipment.  It’s rather problematical getting a harvester from San Diego to the Sacramento area or further north.

These days, were reaching out more to brewers and consumers and formed a quasi-partnership with the California Craft Brewers Association, featuring our hops in their annual beer festival in Sacramento held in September.

A second mission is evolving in that we are working with universities like UC-Davis, and research organizations like USA Hops, and discussing things like what fertilizers work, what pesticides don’t work, and what equipment is best to use.

How did you get into hop farming?

I come from a farming family from the Tulare region, we had an area of our farm that we weren’t doing anything with and a homebrewing friend of mine thought we should try to grow hops there.  At first, we went for 10 plants, and then a third of an acre, and now it’s about a ½ acre.  On our family farm in the central valley, we were growing crops like hay and alfalfa.  We’re transitioning to higher value crops like tomatoes and carrots, and hops is a part of that.  It’s also part of effort to get getting better with our water usage.

What challenges face California hop growers?

Chiefly, it’s having the equipment to cheaply harvest.  For a small start-up operation, the issue is how do you get the equipment so you don’t have to employ a huge labor force to handle it,  We just bought a little mechanical mobile harvester which costs between $10,000-$15,000 that I can also rent out to cover the costs, but it’s still a big expense for any farm.

Another challenge for growers is find the right hop variety for the amount of daylight available.  I have about a half hour less daylight than growers in the Sacramento area, so have to figure out what variety will be grow in those conditions.  Everyone in California is dealing with less daylight than they have in the Pacific Northwest.
California Hop Vines
(Binary Hops photo)

Do California hops have a unique flavor or characteristic that aren’t captured in other regions?

You’ve got a superior product here compared to the Pacific Northwest.  We’re not processing our hops as much here as they are.  If you can get hops out of the field with less mechanical processing, you’re going to get a better product.

Everything I’ve sold is picked around 3 am and used by the brewery by noon.  Most guys when they start sell hops wet because they don’t have a drier.  (Some background: Most hops are dried shortly after they are picked, because otherwise, the cut plants will quickly rot.)

Cascade hops do really well in California.  The have Cluster in their lineage which was originally grown here in California.  It’s never going to be really possible to compete directly with the Yakima growers so we’re trying to find a California terroir.  So were growing things like Neomexicanus hops and they have been doing well.

A publicly available hop variety Washington State University has put out called Cashmere has done excellent in California.  The first year I saw one grow, it was almost a mature plant, I was shocked.
(More background: Hop plants typically take 3 years to fully mature to generate healthy yields.) 
The Hopmeister Farm in California is working on a couple of proprietary varietals, one’s called Gargoyle, that are doing well.  

Any beers or breweries you can name that use California hops?

Breweries are definitely interested in California hops because when they can say “the hops are local”, that generates excitement. I’ve supplied to a couple different breweries in San Luis Obispo, Libertine Brewing and Dunbar Brewing.  Hop growers around Sacramento have supplied Track 7 and LagunitasRuhstaller brews with California hops.

According to acreage statistics from USA Hops, the state of California increased hop acreage from 85 to 130 acres in 2016, a 53% increase over 2015.  Where do you see California’s hop acreage going in 2017?

I can see that number growing 10-20%. It’s real easy to find someone growing hops in their backyard. I see that number being a little off, I see a lot of people doing more.

Anything else you want to add?

I think beer is going to look like the wine industry.  If you get a Syrah, it’s taste will differ from the region it’s grown because the soil is different, the climate is different, the daylight is different.  I see that happening with beer in California.

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