Idaho’s Panhandle Crop
PHOTOGRAPHY Woods Wheatcroft
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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. >>>