Idaho’s Panhandle Crop
PHOTOGRAPHY Woods Wheatcroft
(page 2 of 4)
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.
grow up to a foot in a single day,
ascend to the trellises’ eighteen-foot canopies.
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 According to an unpublished 1983 excerpt by James A. Duke, posted in an online database of Purdue University’s Center for New Crops & Plant Products, “counterculture entrepreneurs”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.” >>>