Warm Spring Wind Hop Farm leads the way in growing hops in Sonoma County
On a hillside overlooking a west county valley, green and lush from the winter rain, stands a sturdy 19-foot-tall wooden structure. Anchored by aircraft cables and a tension pully system, it could be the work of an environmental artist, but it is actually a trellis for growing hops and the centerpiece of Warm Spring Wind Hop Farm. As grower Mike Stevenson explained, it is just one of many small hopyards popping up across Sonoma County that could potentially change the agricultural landscape and the local craft brewery industry.
“Small hops growers and fresh hops going into the craft beer system locally, that would be my dream,” Stevenson said.
The 32-year-old nurse and his wife, Francis Hourigan, an environmental consultant, are both Sebastopol natives who grew up gardening with their families. Encouraged by principles of permaculture and Sonoma County’s hop-growing history, the pair believe that there is room for this crop to capture a big chunk of the market in this region and for hop farmers to be efficient and smart stewards of the land.
The growing season for hops in Sonoma County starts around the beginning of April and runs until roughly the end of October. Stevenson explained that hops can be planted after the last frost and, depending on your micro-climate, harvested between the end of July and mid-September. And while it takes about three years for the perennial crop to become fully established, the plants can be productive for 20 to 25 years. Right now, the hopyard at Warm Spring Wind Hop Farm is only about a quarter-acre, but Stevenson said the 125 plants that he planted last spring barely met the demand from local brewers.
“Everybody we talk to is like, ‘Oh wow! This is actually happening?’ ” he said.
Sonoma County was once one of the largest hop-producing regions in the country, but after World War II disease, labor strikes and the invention of a mechanized hops-harvester drove large-scale hops production out of California and to the Pacific Northwest, with its cooler climate and longer day length. (Ironically, the inventor of the first commercial hops harvester grew up in Santa Rosa, but the machine worked best in large, flat valleys - not the hilly hopyards of his hometown.) And while fresh hops are now gaining popularity, most brewing companies rely on dry or pelletized hops, which can be harvested, stored and shipped more easily.
But small hops growers like Stevenson are aiming to meet the emerging demand for fresh hops and, while doing so, enhance the variety of crops grown in the county.
“It always makes me nervous when there’s a monoculture in a small area,” Stevenson said.
In fact, many growers, including those with wine grapes, share this sentiment. Stevenson was inspired to grow hops by a fellow nurse who is a home brewer, but he also was influenced by Paul Hawley, another Sonoma County native. Hawley, whose family owns a winery in Dry Creek Valley, started Fogbelt Brewing Company in Santa Rosa in 2014. After helping out in Hawley’s hopyards, Stevenson and his wife were inspired to start their own farm, with the hope that their crop could supply more fresh hops for Fogbelt as well as the estimated 43 small craft brewers in the area.
Beer with fresh hops
The difference in the taste of beer made with fresh hops is subjective, he said, but in general, the hops’ characteristics stand out from the flavor profile of the malt.
“It’s like using fresh herbs from the garden versus something that’s dried out,” Stevenson said.
In fact, he explained, even though it can be more labor intensive to brew beer with fresh hops, many brewers believe the subtleties in taste are worth it.
And, Stevenson added, as with wine grapes, the location and technique of growing the hops - or “terroir” - also influence the quality and flavor of the beer. Ultimately, he would like this word to be regularly used to describe beer as well as wine. For local businesses to be able to say that the “essence” of their hops is related to the specific region where it was grown would be ideal, he said.
“Craft beer here is already a different animal,” he said.
Stevenson is not alone in his crusade to spread the word about the benefits of locally grown fresh hops. In addition to Fogbelt Brewing, other small breweries, like 3 Disciples in Sebastopol and Carneros Brewing Company in Sonoma, are either growing their own hops or very eager to use hops grown by local farmers.
T he interest and demand has built up so much momentum recently that Stevenson decided to create the NorCal Hop Growers Alliance for both brewers and farmers to create a strong network to share information, collect data about growing and brewing different varieties and create a marketing model that allows them to “sell as much as they could possibly grow.”
“There are definitely no secrets,” said Stevenson, referring to the specific varieties he grows and where to find rhizomes to plant.
As someone who works in medicine, he also strongly believes that science plays a key role in a successful agricultural business. The Alliance has attracted the interest of local specialists, like Paul Vossen of UC Cooperative Extension and Dr. Zachary Sherritt, a chemistry professor and beer enthusiast at Sonoma State University, who have already contributed their historical knowledge and expertise to the group.
Immediate plans for the alliance include instituting a form submission page on the website to collect data from anyone growing hops and organizing a hop-growing conference in March with speakers on large- and small-scale farming, economic and business analysis and local hopyard visits. Stevenson also plans to develop a set of sustainability standards for members which would require, among other things, low impact on the land, efficient water use and minimal runoff for riparian zones. Personally, Stevenson and Hourigan plan to expand their own hopyard by another quarter-acre this season.
Looking forward, back
Warm Spring Wind Hop Farm and the NorCal Hop Growers Alliance are harnessing the new interest and energy of local brewers and growers and, at the same time, relying on the history that shows how well hops grow in Sonoma County.
As Stevenson said, “‘Let’s bring it back because we know there’s potential’ is a lot more motivational than ‘let’s try it and see what happens.’”
For more information on Warm Spring Wind Hops Farm and the NorCal Hop Growers Alliance, visit www.warmspringwind.com/