SALEM — As the sun began to rise on a chilly late summer morning in the Willamette Valley, Gary Weathers stood in the center of one of his family’s hop fields and breathed in deeply.
“I love that smell,” he said, gently pulling apart the green petals of a hop flower — called a cone — to reveal a powdery yellow substance inside. “That’s what gives beer that bitter flavor.”
It was just before 6 a.m., but Weathers and the more than a dozen other workers on the farm had already been at work for hours, pulling the delicate, aromatic plants off of vines strung up across the field and hauling them back to a sorting facility where massive, rumbling machines tear the cones from the leaves.
Usually, the hops would then be funneled into a separate room, where they’d dry for a few hours before being packaged up into pellets for sale to brewers across the country.
But on this September morning, the hundreds of pounds of hops trucked off the fields were headed for a different destination. Once the cones were separated from the leaves, the whole hops would be dumped into 250-pound bags, loaded onto a refrigerated truck and sent directly to Bend, where a few hours later they’d be added to a new batch of fresh-hop beer — fittingly called Hop Trip — at Deschutes Brewery.
From the farm
The production of fresh-hop beer has become an annual tradition for the brewery, which has made Hop Trip for three years, along with a handful of unique fresh-hop brews at its pubs in Bend and Portland. Brett Porter, Deschutes’ head brewer, said the process gives brewers a chance to experiment — and beer drinkers a chance to experience something unusual.
“I think it’s the closest that a brewer can get to the hop in its finest state,” he said. “As soon as you pick the hop, it starts to change flavor. … This is almost like eating local, kind of like the brewer going to the farmers market.”
For breweries in other parts of the country, transferring hops from the field to the brewery in a matter of hours is a nearly impossible challenge. Though the crop is grown around the world, from Germany to New Zealand, nearly all U.S. hop production happens in just three states — Oregon, Washington and Idaho. Oregon ranks second behind Washington as the highest-producing state, with hundreds of acres of hops grown exclusively in the Willamette Valley, said Ann George, the administrator of Hop Growers of America, based in Washington state.
George said most U.S. hop farms are operated by families who have been in the business for decades, largely because of the specialized knowledge and machinery required for the crop’s production.
In Salem, the Weathers family has been growing hops since the late 1950s. Doug Weathers — Gary’s cousin and business partner — has the bulk of the business, with about 450 acres and several varieties of the crop. Doug said he and his siblings and cousins can’t imagine doing anything else — even though the work is far from easy.
“It’s a specialty crop, not that much different than a nursery,” he said. “It’s very labor intensive — you’ve got one shot at it, so you have to do it right.”
Much of the business has remained the same for years, but one thing has changed — in the past decade, more breweries of all sizes have developed an interest in trying out new varieties of hops and producing fresh-hop beers during the harvest season, which runs in Oregon from mid-August to mid-September.
“We are seeing more breweries do some kind of a special fresh-hop ale around the harvest time,” George said. “Some have done that for years and years, and its popularity has caused others to do it. For craft brewers, it’s a nice thing for local interest — a fun, once-a-year celebration of the harvest.”
Paul Arney, the Deschutes brewer who makes the trip every year to pick up the fresh hops from the Weathers’ Salem-area farm, said he and a handful of other brewers got interested in the idea of creating fresh-hop brews about five years ago. They started small; the first year, they took home only a pickup truck full of hops for a small batch at the brewery. A couple years later, the brewery started bottling Hop Trip and, in time, local beer aficionados started taking notice of the brews with the stronger taste and smell of hops.
“People pretty much start asking for it as soon as summer ends,” Arney said of the brewery’s fresh-hop offerings.
This year, Porter said Deschutes is making eight separate types of fresh-hop beer — Hop Trip, which should be on store shelves by the end of the month, and a variety of smaller batches at the brewery’s pubs. In Bend, the first of those beers, Mt. Angel Fresh Hop, debuted earlier this month.
From the field to the bottle or tap, the fresh-hop brews take about two weeks to complete. On the early September trip to the Weathers’ farm, Arney picked up more than 4,000 pounds of fresh hops — enough to make 600 barrels (holding 31 gallons each) of beer.
Just a few hours after the hops were pulled from the vine, they arrived at the Deschutes Brewery in southwest Bend, where a small army of brewers in green jumpsuits was ready to dump them into a giant kettle.
Around noon, as crews hauled in the giant bags of hops, brewer Brian Faivre picked up a handful and smiled, just as Weathers had in the field in Salem six hours earlier.
“This is the one beer people really get excited about,” he said, breathing in.
“There’s nothing better than fresh hop aroma.”