The largest hops farm in America sits just south of the Canadian border, at the same latitude as Eastern Europe’s prime hops region, and the cradle of beer civilization.
Tucked into the far northeastern corner of the idaho panhandle, the kootenai river valley lives according to its own discreet rhythms. Carved by long-extinct glaciers, the wide pastoral valley is flanked by two mountain chains, the Purcells and the Selkirks. The Kootenai River that winds lazily through the lush gorge on the valley floor is the valley’s lifeblood.
Of all the crops that sprout from these dark, humus-rich soils, hop vines are the most significant and unlikely. Here in Idaho’s far north, brew king Anheuser-Busch’s 1,700-acre Elk Mountain Farm produces upwards of 2.5-million pounds of hops annually. According to Anheuser-Busch, Elk Mountain’s has one of the largest spans of contiguous hops trellises in the world.
These vines wind tightly around Atkins, a lifelong farmer whose family put down roots in this valley four generations ago. Near the end of harvest last fall, he gazed north, across the three square miles of manicured trellises that imposed a small order on the wild landscape. The tall and lanky farmer said there’s no other place he’d rather live, nor another industry he’d rather call his own. “We’ve got the perfect climate here,” he said. “It makes for nice hops.”
Man’s relationship with this peculiar plant goes back a long way. It likely began on the grounds of some remote monastery in medieval Europe, in what would become the Czech Republic, Belgium or Germany. Archeological studies from the area show that hops were used as an additive as early as 700 A.D., when barley beer was a nutritional staple for many people, not just monks. The hops’ acids worked as a preservative during winter. “The more hops they added, the longer it would last,” explained Ann George, executive director of Hops Growers of America, based in Washington’s Yakima Valley.
Long before beer, the ancient Romans knew the plant as a wild creeping vine. Pliny the Elder, the Roman scholar and naturalist who perished near Pompeii in 79 A.D., wrote that hops grew “wild among the willows, like a wolf among sheep.” The creeping vine’s Latin name, in fact, is Humulus lupulus, or “earth wolf.” And some horticultural researchers believe that an Asian variety of hops was used for medicinal purposes (as a mild sedative and sleep aid) in the Chinese empire more than a thousand years before Pliny’s writings.
As waves of European colonists set sail for new continents, the domesticated hops plant was along for the ride. Early Americans found a virgin land ripe for cultivation, and westward pioneers added hops to their lists of provisions to preserve calorie-rich breads as they packed wagon trains for the frontier. Later, India Pale Ale earned its name (and sharp acidic taste) during the British Raj, when hops preserved beer for the long ocean journey from England to the Queen’s thirsty troops stationed in India.
Elk Mountain Farm grows experimental strains in a smaller enclosure within the farm; Rows of vine trellises impose a small geometric order on an otherwise wild landscape; During harvest, a truck follows behind a combine as the rows of vines are picked clean.
Following the Industrial Revolution and an increasingly mechanized agriculture, America’s hop-growers skipped around the nation. New England hops farmers abandoned their rocky soils and followed rail lines to California’s fertile Central Valley. Ultimately, the vine growers were drawn to the cool nights and long summer days of the inland Northwest. Today, the region is the country’s only major hops producer.
Elk mountain is no hobby farm. the anheuser-busch outfit employs 200 full-time and seasonal employees to cultivate, harvest, package and distribute their hops. While nature dictates the timing, work on the farm is constant.
“As soon as we cut the last hops down, the new year begins,” Atkins said.
In spring, just after the first green shoots peek from buried rootstocks, workers trim them back to delay their prime growth for mid-summer, when the plants can bask in upwards of sixteen hours of sunlight each day. Meanwhile, coconut-husk twine is hung from wooden trellises so that summer’s clingy vines, which can grow up to a foot in a single day, can ascend to their eighteen-foot canopies.
The hops’ iconic cones emerge in late July, looking like so many tiny green burrs. These valuable buds hold the acids that give your favorite IPA its bright, “hoppy” flavor. On a farm tour last fall, Atkins pulled a fresh cone from a vine and delicately cracked it into equal halves. The resinous yellow powder at the cone’s center, called lupulin, holds the coveted alpha acids. “That’s what we’re after,” Atkins said. “That’s actually what gives beer its bitter.”
Rubbing the two halves of the cone together, Atkins raised them to his nose and drank in the familiar smell before offering me the same. I inhaled deeply and was hit by that unforgettable aroma, the one that comes just before the first sip of a cold pale ale.
Intoxicating scents are written into the this plant’s genetic code. Hops are a member of the botanic family Cannabaceae and is first cousins with another heady crop: cannabis. According to an unpublished 1983 excerpt by James A. Duke, posted in an online database of Purdue University’s Center for New Crops & Plant Products, “counterculture entrepreneurs” successfully grafted hops vines on marijuana stalks to produce a “heady hop.” And while there are many innocuous hemp beers sold today, higher cannabinoid brews remain in the dreams of ambitious home-brewers.
When the most iconic American beer company needed a major hops source, Anheuser-Busch found the perfect real estate, just ten miles from the Canadian border and the hop-friendly 49th parallel. The company cobbled together 1,700 acres of reclaimed riparian lowlands once prone to annual springtime flooding. Though dikes corral today’s mountain runoff, those floods deposited the nutrients that built the valley’s fertile soils and, in turn the hops that flavor your cold bottle of Bud.
The farm’s latitude matches the prime hops-growing regions of Eastern Europe, the cradle of beer civilization. Specific hop breeds that Anheuser-Busch chose for Elk Mountain—Saaz and Hallertau aroma-hops from the Czech Republic and Germany—grow best near the 49th, whether that’s closer to Vancouver or Stuttgart. The most critical component for this finicky crop, Atkins explained, and especially with the Saaz variety, is the plant’s extreme day-length sensitivity. Hops need those sixteen hours or more of sun to thrive, and on this count, Elk Mountain Farm truly shines.
But even in the best conditions, this is not a crop for the novice farmer. Know-how is passed down through families, and today, most are fourth- to sixth-generation growers. “It’s kind of like ranching,” said George. “Once a cattleman always a cattleman. It’s in your blood.”
In Idaho and nationwide, the number of hops farms is in steady decline. Demand hasn’t lessened, but in the age of centralized industrial agriculture, small-scale operations rarely turn a steady profit. Where 400 acres were once enough for a farmer to make a living, today’s hops farms average about 700 acres, and big farms like Elk Mountain exceed 1,000 acres.
The up-front costs for a young farm are prohibitive. High-quality rootstock, which must be replanted about every fifteen years, is not cheap. Neither is the specialized farming and processing equipment needed to harvest, bale and dry Humulus lupulus. Up-front costs for a typical working hop farm tally about $7,000 an acre. In all but the best years, it is a break-even proposition.
Still, there are at least 270 hops growers operating in the U.S. today, second only to Germany as the largest-producing country in the world. Washington’s Yakima Valley produces the bulk of American hops on more than 40,000 acres. Oregon and Idaho round out the top three states.
Here in Idaho, hop-farming has been led by two families, the Batts and the Goodings. Former Republican Governor Phil Batt’s family planted the arid Treasure Valley west of Boise in 1934, and Batt was a grower before being elected governor in 1995. Today, the Idaho Hops Growers Association is led by Mike Gooding, whose family left Oregon to grow hops under Idaho’s big skies in the 1940s. Then, as today, Treasure Valley hops growers made their living on the Wilder Bench, a fertile strip of land near the confluence of the Boise and Snake rivers and home to the farming communities of Greenleaf, Wilder and Roswell.
Agriculture mixes the miracles of nature with the fundamental aspirations of mankind. Over the course of five months on Elk Mountain Farm, these inherited skills are on full display.
The annual show starts with the first buried shoots that farmers coax from warm spring soil. In the months that follow, swift rainstorms will lash at entangled webs of coconut husk twine and dangling hop vines. The light of five full moons will shine ghostly across these fields before harvest, which, relative to summer’s slow symphony, is a compressed and frenzied crescendo. Last season, the operation’s fleet of six lumbering combines harvested 1,700 acres in twenty-two days.
“That’s going twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week,” Atkins said inside the cab of his pickup as we bounced along the farm’s dusty and rutted backroads.
At Elk Mountain’s headquarters, a colossal system of conveyor belts, shaking racks and enormous sieves rumble day and night to separate the one-inch cones from unwanted leaves, stems and vines. The cones are dried in propane-fired kilns and pressed into cloth-wrapped, 200-pound bales that are hand-sewn by workers prior to shipment.
“From here they’re taken up the ramp, loaded on a truck, and off to cold storage they go,” Atkins said. “This is it.”
Atkins sees off his annual harvest with notable pride, just as farmers of all stripes have for generations. Within weeks, his hops will end up in a bottle of Budweiser, where the farm’s hard work pays dividends in the reliable comfort of an ice cold bottle of beer.