Monday, October 12, 2015

Profile Series : Growing Local Beer : Crosby Hop Farm

Special guest post by Joe Morris. 

Late August through early September is a magical time in Oregon as local beer drinkers await the flood of wet hop beers headed to taprooms and bottle shops. But nowhere is the magic felt more strongly than in a local hop yard. I paid a visit to Crosby Hop Farm recently to tour the grounds, learn a little more about their process and share the experience with #pdxbeergeeks at this very special time of year.

While I considering which farm I would visit, I obviously wanted to choose local. We are fortunate in PDX to live in the heart of one of the world's richest hop-producing areas, and I wanted to take advantage of that. I’ve been ordering hops from Crosby Hop Farm for the past three years as a homebrewer, and quite frankly, the quality of pellets I’ve bought from them has consistently outperformed any other source I’ve found. It is hard to overstate how good their pellets are. They’re of incredible quality. The aroma, oil content and texture are amazing. Besides, how much more local can you get than a 300-acre, fifth-generation, family-owned hop farm just a stone’s throw from Portland?

The farm was at peak production when I visited on September 11. Operations for harvest began on August 21, with the Centennial crop peaking first, kicking off the harvest. The harvest operations concluded a few short weeks later, on September 16. Beau Evers, Regional Accounts Manager, said average Oregon yield was estimated at about 1,700 pounds per acre, with CHF experiencing greater than average yields. Great news for hop heads—this promises to be a big year.

Nugget hops drying in the kiln.

With harvest operations in the rearview, things now shift into high gear for pelletization. CHF's pelletization process is part of what differentiates them from the pack. Most farms in Oregon seek a third party for their pellet processing; they grow, pick, kiln and package whole cones, but rely on a processing plant for pelletization. CHF is unique in that they pelletize on site. In recent years, under the direction of fifth-generation farmer and Managing Director Blake Crosby, CHF has invested more than $3 million in its direct sales infrastructure, processing and storage capabilities. This significant investment includes the 2013 installation of a top-of-the-line, on-site pellet mill.  

Although pelletizing presents a bottleneck for the process, it is essential for the quality of product CHF strives to attain. Running hops through the pellet mill at an optimal pace leads to a pellet that is produced at a lower temperature. For example, a hop pelletized at 150 degrees will suffer enough oil degradation to impart a burnt, rubbery off flavor that will flat-out ruin a beer. In contrast, Evers has seen pellets of Centennial coming off their pellet mill at 95 degrees, a number that dropped the jaws of several pro brewers in the room during our tour. By improving utilization of a pellet without sacrificing the oil content of a whole cone, it truly is the best of both worlds.

Beau Evers describes harvest operations to a members of B.I.N.G.: Beverage Industry Networking Group 

Though 95 percent of the hops CHF sells are pellets, there are some accounts that stay committed to using whole cones. CHF farms Cascade, Centennial, Chinook, Crystal, Nugget, Sterling, Mt Hood, US Golding, and, for the first time in 2015, the highly sought-after Amarillo (VGXP01). In addition to those grown on site, 75 additional varieties are sourced through partners to be processed and sold by CHF.

2015 is a big year for CHF, including their debut crop of Amarillo

Beyond kilned whole cones and pellets, CHF has seen a pretty steep uptick in "fresh" or "wet" hop orders. Each of the varieties CHF grows is available to breweries as wet hops.  

Wet or fresh hop beers are an absolute treasure. Unkilned wet hops straight from the field are hauled to boil kettles at local breweries, often conveyed via such novel delivery modes as the back of a pickup truck. However, Evers noted that some far-flung accounts are even paying top dollar to air ship wet hops from CHF across the country for next-day use. Wet hops are delivered within hours of picking and added to the end of the boil to preserve the volatile oils specific to each crop of each of variety. These beers are best served fresh and change daily in the package (kegs and bottles alike). The character is unmistakable. We are truly blessed to live as close to the fields as we do, because these beers are a celebration of this magical time of year.

It was incredible walking the fields at CHF, located just off I-5 near Woodburn. The hop aroma permeates the dank air for the entire surrounding area. I absolutely recommend driving the local roads in late August and early September. The operation is impressive from the roadside, and up close, that smell is unbeatable.

This is part one of a three-part series on locally sourced beer ingredient producers. The series will feature a hop farm (Crosby Hop Farm), a barley malt farm (Mecca Grade Estate Malt) and a local organic yeast lab (Imperial Organic Yeast).

Your humble author, dwarfed by a not-so-humble heap of hops