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.
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.
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.”
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!
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.
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
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.
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”.
Goose Island Beer Co., a division of Anheuser-Busch InBev provided travel, lodging, meals and beer for the reporting of this article.
D.J. is a Portland, Oregon based writer that spent his formative years in the Midwest. With over 25 years under his belt of drinking beer at festivals across America and the world, he has developed a strong appreciation and understanding of craft beer and the industry that surrounds it. He can be found in any of the great breweries or beer bars that make Portland the best beer city in the world. His writing can also be found in the archives of Northwest Brewing News and can be followed on Twitter and Instagram at @hopapalooza.