A Visit To Elk Mountain Farms, The World’s Largest Hop Farm

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An aerial view of Elk Mountain Farms located in Bonners Ferry, Idaho near the 49th parallel.

In Germany where the hop fields run aplenty, the varieties that first caught the eye of August Busch III were the hops grown in the Hallertau region of Bavaria, Germany located along the 49th Parallel. So in 1987 he had Anheuser-Busch plant hops at the similar latitude in northern Idaho in the town of Bonners Ferry, just 10 miles south of the Canadian border. This area is very remote and cell service in the area switches between U.S. and Canadian carriers.

The terroir surrounding Elk Mountain Farms was sought out for its ability to grow many of these same European varieties that prefer long warm days and cool nights. At the peak of the long days of summer, Bonners Ferry will receive close to 16 hours of sunlight. Ever since the farm planted its first hops 29 years ago, Ed Atkins has been working at Elk Mountain Farms. Prior to coming to Elk Mountain Farms, Atkins a fourth generation Idahoan spent time in the forestry industry.

Ed Atkins, General Manager at Elk Mountain Farms, leads the Goose Island Hop Farm Tour in later August. On this day the farm was harvesting Saaz hops.
Ed Atkins, General Manager at Elk Mountain Farms, leads the Goose Island Hop Farm Tour in later August. On this day the farm was harvesting Saaz hops.

Over the course of the past 29 years the farm’s acreage of hops has grown to 1,700 acres making it the largest single hop farm in the world. During the farm’s early years, “The intent was to grow aroma type (hops),” states Atkins. When asked how many hop varieties are grown on the farm today Atkins replied, “We have ten commercial and 108 experimental ones.” This marks a large increase from the three varieties that the farm had grown prior to its involvement in the craft beer industry. “In the old days we grew Tettnang, Saaz, and Hallertau.”

Goose Island Beer Co. is the driving force these days at Elk Mountain Farms. Since A-B purchased the Chicago based brewery about five years ago, Goose Island now uses the highest percentage of hops grown on the farm. However some of the hops are making its way into the hands of brewers at some of the more recent A-B InBev acquisitions such as 10 Barrel Brewing and Elysian Brewing as they are now taking advantage of the hop supply at Elk Mountain Farms.

Upon arrival at Elk Mountain Farms we grabbed a tallboy of Goose Island Four Star Pils. The four stars refer to the stars on the Chicago City Flag.
Upon arrival at Elk Mountain Farms we grabbed a tallboy of Goose Island Four Star Pils. The four stars refer to the stars on the Chicago City Flag.

We asked Atkins what percentage Goose Island uses and he boldly stated, “I will have to think on that one but I am not going to tell you.” However, he is more forthcoming when asked what is the largest variety that is grown? “Amarillo,” he confidently states. Then when we followed that up with “what is your annual production?” Atkins states, “I am not going to tell you that either.” Maybe we should have placed a few Goose IPA’s, one of his favorite beers, in front of him to use as truth serum.

“Goose has been really great to us. They helped perpetuate a lot of the innovation on the farm including the micro processing plant. This is their dream.” The challenges that Atkins faces are when the brewery decides that they want a new hop variety planted. It usually takes three years for a hop plant to provide a decent yield in Northern Idaho. Therefore long-term planning is essential. Atkins adds, “You lose a lot of money the first year. The second year depending on the price, you may break even. The third year you better be making money.”

Ed Atkins describing how the custom built hop picker works. Each of the farms six custom made hop pickers can have a cost of up to $1.5M each. With the limited amount of hop farms in the world, these pickers are one of a kind.
Ed Atkins describing how the custom built hop picker works. Each of the farms six custom made hop pickers can cost of up to $1.5M each. With the limited amount of hop farms in the world, these hop pickers are one of a kind.

From traveling the farm earlier on the second day of our visit, the amount of twine used that allows the hop bines to travel upwards of twenty feet has to be immense. It also seems that the twine is a bit more heavy duty than what I have seen on Oregon hop farms. “We actually order heavier twine here because of the heavy wind,” states Atkins.

Circling back to the amount of twine Atkins says, “Most of it is two strung, but I’m going to give you a more conservative number. It’s roughly 3 million pieces across the acreage. So the total length would be 63 million feet.” He then goes on to add, “So it would be 12,000 miles.” Now that’s a lot of twine that is strung every year!

The hops seem to go on forever at Elk Mountain Farms in Bonners Ferry, Idaho.
The hops seem to go on forever at Elk Mountain Farms in Bonners Ferry, Idaho.
The Elk Mountain Farms build hop picker that was harvesting Saaz Hops during our visit on the farm.
The Elk Mountain Farms build hop picker that was harvesting Saaz Hops during our visit on the farm.

During our visit the farm’s hop harvest was just beginning in late August. We asked Atkins what the expectations are for the 2016 crop. “I think overall the quality is going to be good. I think the yields will be better than average. It may be one of our best year’s since 2009, but we will see.”

Over the years the farm has become a bit more automated when it comes to harvest season. Elk Mountain Farms has six hop cutters, all built in house to serve the farm at a cost of roughly $1.5M each. Atkins and his crew have named all six of them. “We have Greenie, Blondie, Blue, Ruby, Christine and 007. This was the last one we built in 2007” Each picker is different and were built over the years at the farm. “There isn’t one of them that’s the same,” stated Atkins.

“There are a lot of rewards to being a hop farmer. People are always curious about hops. They see wheat and barley everyday and nobody stops to talk to a wheat farmer. But if you’re a hop farmer, people stop and inquire about hops.” Of course they do Ed. Thanks for the fun visit!

Here’s a photo exhibit from our memorable trip last month to Elk Mountain Farms. First up are photos from the arrival to the hop farm.

Looking at part of the 1,700 acres at Elk Mountain Farms from our helicopter ride in.
Looking at part of the 1,700 acres at Elk Mountain Farms from our helicopter ride in.
Aerial view of Elk Mountain Farms in Bonners Ferry, Idaho.
Aerial view of Elk Mountain Farms in Bonners Ferry, Idaho.
The common area of the camp at Elk Mountain Farms.
The common area of the camp at Elk Mountain Farms.
Tents at Elk Mountain Farms beyond the fire pit.
Tents at Elk Mountain Farms beyond the fire pit.
Inside my "tent" at Elk Mountain Farms.
Inside my “tent” at Elk Mountain Farms.
Four of the Goose Island taps at Elk Mountain Farms including the Chicago only release of Old Man Grumpy Pale Ale. This beer was very popular with the guests.
Four of the Goose Island taps at Elk Mountain Farms including the Chicago only release of Old Man Grumpy Pale Ale. This beer was very popular with the guests.
Farm safety meeting at Elk Mountain Farms, with a beer of course!
Farm safety meeting at Elk Mountain Farms, with a beer of course!
Idaho sunset over the hop fields at Elk Mountain Farms.
Idaho sunset over the hop fields at Elk Mountain Farms.
Goose Island's Mark Kamarauskas ready to serve Bourbon County Rare among other barrel aged treats at a remote pop-up bar at Elk Mountain Farms.
Goose Island’s Mark Kamarauskas ready to serve Bourbon County Rare among other barrel aged treats at a remote pop-up bar at Elk Mountain Farms.
Goose Island Bourbon Brand County Stout variants at Elk Mountain Farms.
Goose Island Bourbon Brand County Stout variants at Elk Mountain Farms.

Next up is a collection of photos from our tour of the 1,700 acres of hops growing at Elk Mountain Farms. The day started with breakfast and the tour of the farms took place. The vast amount of acreage at Elk Mountain Farms is impressive. We spend time in the fields learning about hops and how the decis

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The day began with Goose Island Sofie Mimosas. Not a bad way to start of a cool morning in Northern Idaho.
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A hearty breakfast prior to our hop farm tour.
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Ed Atkins takes the lead Gator to begin the tour of the hop fields.
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The hop trellises at Elk Mountain Farms seem to go on forever.
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Ed Atkins, center, discusses hops with Goose Island brewers Keith Gabbett and Quinn Fuechsl at Elk Mountain Farms.
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One of six custom made hop pickers on Elk Mountain Farms.
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Saaz hops being harvested.
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The hop picker is about to begin a new row of trellises at Elk Mountain Farms.
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The lower cutter blades on the hop picker at Elk Mountain Farms.
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A view from the driver’s seat on the hop picker. To access this area the driver climbs a ladder to enter.
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The hop picker in action harvesting Saaz hops at Elk Mountain Farms.
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Elk Mountain Farms is very proud of the hops that the farm grows for Goose Island Beer. The brewery’s Goose IPA uses hops from the farm in Northern Idaho.
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Hops are a food product!
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Hops as they arrive for processing from the farm.
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Hops dropping into the kiln that will be dried to reduce the hop’s moisture content.
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A bucket of Saaz hops that will be used for a “farm brew” later in the afternoon.
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Its raining hops! Here is where the hops are kiln dried.
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Freshly harvested Saaz hops prior to being kiln dried.
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A truck delivering hops for processing.
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When Anheuser-Busch owns this many acres they get to name the roads in which the hop farm is located. (photo by Samantha Klein)

Then later in the afternoon we gathered with two brewers from Goose Island, Keith Gabbett and Quinn Fuechsl, to brew a beer on the farm using from freshly harvested hops. Not a bad way to end an afternoon on the farm.

Five hop varieties from Elk Mountain Farms.
Five hop varieties from Elk Mountain Farms.
Amarillo Hops from Elk Mountain Farms.
Amarillo Hops from Elk Mountain Farms.
Cascade Hops from Elk Mountain Farms.
Cascade Hops from Elk Mountain Farms.
Centennial Hops from Elk Mountain Farms.
Centennial Hops from Elk Mountain Farms.
Hallertau Hops from Elk Mountain Farms.
Hallertau Hops from Elk Mountain Farms.
Mt. Hood Hops from Elk Mountain Farms.
Mt. Hood Hops from Elk Mountain Farms.
Goose Island brewers Keith Gabbett and Quinn Fuechsl adding the malt extract to the farm brew at Elk Mountain Farms. Yes, we used malt extract.
Goose Island brewers Keith Gabbett and Quinn Fuechsl adding the malt extract to the farm brew at Elk Mountain Farms. Yes, we used malt extract.
Goose Island brewers Keith Gabbett and Quinn Fuechsl filtering the wort through more hops at Elk Mountain Farms.
Goose Island brewers Keith Gabbett and Quinn Fuechsl filtering the wort through more hops at Elk Mountain Farms.
Adding fresh hops at Elk Mountain Farms.
Adding fresh hops at Elk Mountain Farms.
Adding the wort to the carboy at Elk Mountain Farms.
Adding the wort to the carboy at Elk Mountain Farms.
Yeast for the farm brew at Elk Mountain Farms.
Yeast for the farm brew at Elk Mountain Farms.

The second day of the trip culminated with a Farewell Beer Dinner inside a row of hop trellises at Elk Mountain Farms. The amazing five course dinner was provided by Chef Jeremy Hansen of Santé Restaurant & Charcuterie located in Spokane, Washington. Last year Chef Hansen was a semi-finalist nomination from the James Beard Foundation for “Best Chef Northwest”.

The table is set for the Farewell Beer Dinner at Elk Mountain Farms.
The table is set for the Farewell Beer Dinner at Elk Mountain Farms.
Mark Kamarauskas, Director of Operations at Goose Island welcomes the group to the Farewell Beer Dinner at Elk Mountain Farms.
Mark Kamarauskas, Director of Operations at Goose Island welcomes the group to the Farewell Beer Dinner at Elk Mountain Farms.
Charger plate with dinner menu at Elk Mountain Farms
Charger plate with dinner menu at Elk Mountain Farms.
Goose Island brewer Keith Gabbett discussing the a beer while having dinner in the hop fields at Elk Mountain Farms.
Goose Island brewer Keith Gabbett discussing the a beer while having dinner in the hop fields at Elk Mountain Farms.
Hop field dinner first course of Seared Peaches, Tomato, Arugula with Halia Dressing at Elk Mountain Farms.
Hop field dinner first course of Seared Peaches, Tomato, Arugula with Halia Dressing at Elk Mountain Farms.
Christina Perozzi of Goose Island speaks at the dinner at Elk Mountain Farms.
Christina Perozzi of Goose Island speaks at the dinner at Elk Mountain Farms.
Hop field dinner second course with Smoked Chicken at Elk Mountain Farms.
Hop field dinner second course with Smoked Chicken at Elk Mountain Farms.
Goose Island brewer Quinn Fuechsl at the dinner in the Elk Mountain Farms hop field.
Goose Island brewer Quinn Fuechsl at the dinner in the Elk Mountain Farms hop field.
Hop field dinner third course of Braised Bacon with Amarillo Hop Honey Glaze at Elk Mountain Farms.
Hop field dinner third course of Braised Bacon with Amarillo Hop Honey Glaze at Elk Mountain Farms.
A glass of Goose Island during the Farewell Beer Dinner at Elk Mountain Farms.
A glass of Goose Island during the Farewell Beer Dinner at Elk Mountain Farms.
Hop field dinner fourth course of Elk Loin at Elk Mountain Farms.
Hop field dinner fourth course of Elk Loin at Elk Mountain Farms.
The "Sisters of Goose Island" at the Farewell Beer Dinner.
The “Sisters of Goose Island” at the Farewell Beer Dinner.
Dinner under the hop bines and lights at Elk Mountain Farms
Dinner under the hop bines and lights at Elk Mountain Farms
Dessert of Angel Food Cake with Fresh Hops at Elk Mountain Farms.
Dessert of Angel Food Cake with Fresh Hops at Elk Mountain Farms.
Bonus dessert at Elk Mountain Farms Farewell Beer Dinner.
Bonus dessert at Elk Mountain Farms Farewell Beer Dinner.
The final night of the trip after our amazing dinner we all gathered around a campfire. The next morning we departed camp and headed back to reality.
The final night of the trip after our amazing dinner we all gathered around a campfire. The next morning we departed camp and headed back to reality.

Goose Island Beer Co., a division of Anheuser-Busch InBev provided travel, lodging, meals and beer for the reporting of this article.

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