Tales from the 2018 Oregon Hop Harvest

With the 2018 once-a-year hop harvest well underway, I had a chance to visit Crosby Hop Farm in Woodburn, Oregon, as the crew geared up for another busy year. In 2017 Oregon for the first time fell behind Idaho in hop production, going from the second to third place behind Washington’s dominant Yakima growing region. But here in Oregon we have a blossoming independent hop growing and brokerage industry and a research and development program from Oregon State University that is well funded. Because of that, Oregon hop farmers like Crosby Hop Farm are still considered pioneers of the industry, discovering new hops and better ways of farming and breeding. Developed in conjunction with Oregon State University and Indie Hops, the Strata hop is one of the new Oregon created varieties of hops with potential to be a future break out star.

Crosby Farm was first established by Albert and Mary Crosby in 1900 under the McCormick Donation Land Claim. That tradition carried on recently to Kevin Crosby, a fourth generation hop farmer who has passed on the running of the family business to his son Blake in 2012. Blake has overseen a transition in the farm from a simple hop grower selling bales to becoming large hop brokers who would then pelletize, resell, and distribute them, to becoming their own independent hop broker and even installing their own pelletizing machine.

Blake Crosby shows us around the just harvested Centennial hop fields at Crosby Hop Farm

Crosby Hop Farm began to cut out the middle man and establish its own network of partner growers and a national  hop sales team. The ability to pelletize their own hops was part of a huge investment that pays off in the long-term since most of the industry now uses pellet hops for great efficiency and cost effectiveness. Not many farms have the capability to pelletize their own product as well as go directly to the brewers, a strategy that has proved successful since the farm has doubled its acreage in the last seven years up to 420 acres and grows eleven different hop varieties. Crosby has proved that it is possible to do more than one thing well. As it stands, Crosby Hop Farm is the only Certified B Corporation farm and processor in Oregon; the farm also has Salmon-Safe hop certification and 100% renewable energy powered.

Centennial hops are one of the most popular northwest hops that are also widely available and they often lead off the harvest by being the first ready to be picked, this year the harvest began with them on August 18th. “The weather was very warm all season,” says Crosby marketing manager Zak Schroelucke, that resulted in early harvest for Centennial’s that required increased watering. “The powdery mildew pathogen was more pervasive in some varieties as well,” reports Schroelucke, but that overall it was a great harvest this year.

Crosby is one of the leaders in Oregon in new and up-trending hop varietals which are often proprietary and licensed. Crosby was the first farm in Oregon to begin growing Amarillo’s back in 2015, it’s now one of the most desirable hops. Crosby is also betting big by dusting off an old hop called “Comet” to reintroduce it for some of it’s new school flavors. This variety was first bred as a bittering high alpha acid hop, used for the bang for the buck of  having a higher level of bitterness that allowed brewers to use fewer hops to achieve the desired bite. Comet just wasn’t as strong as some of the other high alpha varieties developed at the time so it was tossed aside in the 70’s until about five years ago. Comet has the new-school “wild American aroma” of tropical and citrus fruits that are currently highly desirable. “The citrus, ripe melon, pine, and tropical notes in Comet blew us away when we rubbed the hop after the first year harvest” says Schroelucke. Crosby is the first farm in Oregon to grow Comet hops that are being harvested for the first time this year. As with any hop it has it’s downsides in that it’s suceptible to downy mildew that develops in warm temperatures in wet climates which makes Oregon a risky place to grow Comet. On the plus side, Comet is resistent to powdery mildew.

Idaho 7 is another hop new hop variety that Crosby Hop Farm is growing for the first time in Oregon. Idaho 7 was developed by Jackson Hop of Idaho but pelletized, co-promoted and brokered by Crosby. Idaho 7 is still in short but highly desirable supply, probably because it carries a strong pineapple aroma which is the hottest fruit flavor in beer and cider right now. Blake Crosby says that Idaho 7 really “sings when paired with other great hops” like other tropical new school varieties like Azacca and Strata.

Strata is perhaps the most interesting, possibly a game changer of a hop for Oregon farmers and brokers Indie Hops which helped develop this variety with Oregon State University. Roger Worthington of Indie Hops is also the owner of Bend, Oregon’s Worthy Brewing and helped develop many test hop breeds at the breweries on-site pilot growing program and through a grant to OSU. The first really successful hop out of the program is the X-331 aka Strata. You may have first heard or tasted this hop in a one-off IPA called Stratasphere from Worthy Brewing that went on to win a Gold Medal last year at the Oregon Beer Awards and was later drafted up to become a new year-round bottle release called simply Strata IPA. With early buzz for the Strata hop, Indie Hops (which does not grow their own hops) has partnered with Crosby Hop Farm to put a lot more of this variety in the ground and they are really making a splash this year. “After highlighting Strata at CBC 2018 in Nashville, we got a tremendous response from brewers,” says Schroelucke. Indie Hops and Crosby are hoping that the Strata could become the next big proprietary hop, competitive with the likes of Simcoe and Citra. Strata’s flavor has recognizable characteristics but paired with others in an uncommon way, it has “citrus and tropical aromas paired with a hint of cannabis-like character for complexity — it’s an awesome flavor” as described by Schroelucke.

To be one of the few hop farms and brokers to offer an emerging variety like Strata could be big business for Crosby and Indie Hops. Crosby Farm is one of the only hop farms to sell direct to brewers and the installation of their own processing and pelletizing equipment producing Type 90 hop pellets designed for craft brewers. The Type 90s are processed at a lower heat to keep more of the fragile hop aromas and flavors intact while Type-45 is more compact, processed at a higher temperature with more vegetal material removed for a more concentrated product. So you may see 45s more in big breweries trying to get bang for their buck while the Type 90s are excellent for dry-hopping when cost is less important than getting a noseful of aroma.

Crosby Hop Farm is also unique in how much they open their arms to incoming brewers and even media such as myself to see the operation, right in the middle of the busiest time of year the hop harvest. “Today, the direct to brewer connection is even stronger as many visit the farm during fresh hop season to pick up the wet hop bounty, tour the fields and select their hops according to variety and lot after harvest” says Schroelucke.

Bridgeport Brewing is an important local buyer for Crosby and one who has recently stated their intention to refocus as a hop-centric brewery. I visited Crosby one day with Bridgeport Brewmaster Jeff Edgerton as they were picking up fresh Centennial’s for the breweries annual fresh hop brew. It was just the 2nd day of the hop harvest at Crosby Hop Farm and you could tell they were extremely busy, ducking tractors, machetes and whirling, sharp industrial equipment used to separate the bine and leaves from the cone I got to see the whole process up close.

Crosby’s Zak Schroelucke (left) and Bridgeport’s Jeff Edgerton (right) bagging up fresh hops

“Blake and his family are farmers at heart and know every square inch of their operations” said Edgerton who appreciates the multigenerational history of Crosby and their commitment to seeing the hops from rhizome, through processing, pelletizing and sales straight to the breweries. Edgerton and some of his brewers drove back 180 pounds of fresh whole cone hops for a fresh hopped German Marzen-style lager they are making this year called “Hoptoberfest.” Using Crosby is an easy choice for Edgerton, “combined with the facts that they are local (less diesel to get hops to us), they grow a great variety of the highest quality hops, and they are genuinely good folks to deal with make Crosby Farms a slam-dunk for us.” Last year they also brewed with Centennials but did a tiny batch of fresh hopped beer with Crosby’s early small Idaho 7 crop that turned out delicious. Bridgeport has made some of the best fresh hop beers of all-time, I fondly remember the year they reintroduced a bottled Hop Harvest IPA in 2017 that was mind blowingly citrus fruit hop candy.

“We believe in doing everything that we can to preserve the delicate fresh hop aromas and flavors.  So, don’t add fresh hops on the hot side (during brewing) but instead we use the fresh hops as a “dry hop” by adding a few days into fermentation,”  says Edgerton on how he coaxes great flavors out of fresh hops.  “This way the brew has stopped evolving large amounts of CO2 but is still warm.  CO2 is a great solvent for hop aromas and flavors and can strip out what you are trying to keep in your beer if the brew is still producing copious amounts and blowing it out the tank vent.  By waiting until the 3rd, 4th, or even 5th day of fermentation, we retain those compounds and get the most from our fresh hop additions.”

You can soon taste the product of Bridgeport Brewing and Crosby Hop Farm’s work as Bridgeport releases Hoptoberfest as the fifth limited-edition release in their Hop Hero series. Look for it in 12oz cans and 22oz bottles in 13 states and Bridgeport’s Hoptoberfest party on Saturday, October 6th at the brewpub in NW Portland.

Samurai Artist
Samurai Artist

Founder of The New School and most frequent contributor Ezra Johnson-Greenough has worked in the craft beer industry for almost 10 years, doing everything from illustrating beer labels to bartending at renowned beer bars and breweries like Belmont Station, Apex, Laurelwood and Upright Brewing. He has also had a hand in creating events like the Portland Fruit Beer Festival, Portland Beer Week, and the Brewing up Cocktails series. He is available for freelance consultation in marketing, events, graphic design and branding. Contact: SamuraiArtist@NewSchoolBeer.com