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.