“Hey, nobody offered the farmer a beer?” Ron Crane yells, smiling, to anyone listening in the crowd that has assembled for what was once a widely celebrated Sonoma County tradition — the annual hop harvest.
It’s 8:30 a.m. on a Thursday in a hop yard nestled in a sheep and cattle ranch south of Santa Rosa. Running back and forth between rows of comet, bitter gold, cashmere and triumph varieties, the Crane Ranch Hops grower finally takes a moment to notice that the crew of about a dozen young staffers from Seismic Brewing Co. — many who have never been in a hop yard in their lives — are all knocking back fresh-brewed helles lagers in shiny, unwrapped cans.
“You gotta have a beer in your hand on a morning like this,” Crane says, after someone fetches him a can.
It’s a moment worth celebrating. A few years ago, he and his wife, Erica, dreamed of planting a thriving hop yard that would flavor local craft beers. Now, it’s coming to fruition in its second year. To survive the drought, they depleted an emergency reserve of 100,000 gallons stored next to an old well they tapped for the first time in decades. They’ll have to start hauling water soon.
This year’s crop is healthy, abundant, fragrant and loaded with lupulin, the bright gold flavor crystals you see when you split open a hop flower or cone. It marks the revival of a once-thriving local crop that had all but died by the 1960s, until a handful of local beer lovers resurrected it and started the NorCal Hop Growers Alliance.
But there’s something even more special happening on this morning. Many of the hops harvested will go into rare batches of 100% homegrown beers — made entirely with local hops and local barley, all grown, harvested, malted and brewed within a 12-mile radius.
Never has terroir been so relevant in a beer. It’s the first time this has happened in the modern era of Sonoma County brewing, and possibly the first time since family-owned pre-prohibition brewhouses in the 1920s gave way to the corporate industry consolidation of the ’40s and ’50s.
In Sonoma County, where it’s commonplace to grow, harvest and age estate wines, local craft beer is never an estate product. Most hops come from Yakima Valley in Washington or Oregon or Idaho. And the barley often comes from North Dakota, Montana, Washington and Idaho, and as far as Canada, processed in corporate bulk malt houses like Rahr or Great Western.
Inspired to make a wet-hopped lager unlike anything he’s ever brewed, Seismic brewmaster Andy Hooper is releasing the Sonoma Estate Festbier at a harvest party Friday. By mid- to late October, Old Caz co-owners Tom Edwards and Bryan Rengel hope to launch The Local, a dry-hopped Sonoma County Pale Ale made with local barley and local cascade, crystal and chinook hops. If the scheduling and malting works out, Steele & Hops brewer Justin Green plans to make an all-local IPA or pale ale later in October. And Russian River Brewing Co. co-owner and brewmaster Vinnie Cilurzo is experimenting with a few pilot batches with an eye on releasing a locally sourced, dry-hopped beer this winter.
It’s the realization of a dream hatched a few years ago by Crane, a former Apache helicopter fighter pilot who returned to his fifth-generation farm, James Mahon, a former New York fashion photographer turned maltster, and a tightknit group of brewers — all on a quest to sow, grow and brew everything as close to home as possible.
In the cultlike craft beer industry, where breweries are followed like sports teams and top brewers are celebrated like rock stars, and the pursuit of freshness is an obsession. Many consumers want to know the origin story behind everything they eat and drink, and an all-local brew is the holy grail of the farm-to-glass movement. Not to mention, it leaves a super-light carbon footprint. One of the beers will be made by forklifting grain 100 yards from Grizzly Malt to Old Caz. The whole process comes full circle when you consider Crane takes the spent grains, left over after brewing, from Old Caz, Russian River and Steele and Hops to feed his cattle and sheep — the same sheep that fertilize his hops.
For the sake of record-keeping, it’s worth noting that Nile Zacherle at Mad Fritz crafted a Sonoma County-origin beer in 2017, made with barley from Front Porch Farm in Healdsburg and hops grown at Scott Bice’s Capracopia hop yard in Sebastopol, but it was malted and brewed in Napa County.