Long vines trellised 25 feet in the air are snipped, hauled to a long table and stripped of their buds.
It’s a new kind of harvest, as hops crop up among the grapevines and other agriculture around San Luis Obispo County. Breweries and farmers have begun experimenting with small plantings of the popular beer ingredient, used for both bittering and aromatics.
BarrelHouse Brewing Co., in Paso Robles’ Tin City complex, recently harvested almost 60 pounds of hop cones, as the buds are called, from 150 vines planted along the edge of the property. They’ll use the haul — a mix of cascade, chinook, cashmere and neomexicanus — to brew a fresh-hopped pale ale that will be available around the beginning of November.
“It’s a fun thing to do that ties us to the Paso landscape,” said Gavin Warnock, BarrelHouse’s lead brewer and cellar master, even though it’s a drop in the barrel compared with the 5,000 or so pounds of hops the brewery uses each year.
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The tiny Toro Creek Brewing Co. grows a quarter-acre of hops as well as barley in the hills between Atascadero and Morro Bay, and Paso Hops supplies homebrewers from about 100 plants at Skip Hop Farm in San Miguel.
Grover Beach’s ManRock Brewing Co. and Libertine Brewing’s Morro Bay outpost both planted a few hop vines around their properties, and Libertine worked with a nursery in northeastern Paso Robles to grow about 100 cascade and chinook plants.
“I’m always looking for unique ways to do SLO terroir,” said Libertine founder Tyler Clark, who dries and ages the hops to use for their preservation characteristics. “It’s great to be able to use all estate-grown hops for a batch.”
The experimental plantings reflect national trends.
Hop acreage, driven by craft beer drinkers’ insatiable appetite for hoppy beers in recent years as well as an all-time high number of breweries, increased for the fifth-straight year, up 18.5 percent in 2016, according to the Hop Growers of America.
While production is centered almost completely in the Pacific Northwest, some growers are trying to bring the crop back to California, where it flourished in pre-Prohibition days.
The recently formed California Hop Growers Association, based out of an apartment in San Luis Obispo, works with existing and potential hop growers around the state, where there’s about 120 acres total, pulling together resources, conducting research and monitoring quality to help root the crop here again. Depending on the variety, hops can sell for up to $10 per pound, possibly more for rare strains.
“The interest has really exploded over the last three years,” said Landon Friend, one of the association’s organizers, who grows about a half-acre of hops in the Central Valley and is looking to plant about 1,000 vines in San Miguel next year. “We used to get a phone call a month from people interested in growing. Now it’s one a week.”
The ventures haven’t been without challenges. SLO’s Tap It Brewing put its hop project on hold after experiencing problems with wind damage, drought and mildew.
Experimentation and research on strains like California Cluster that are better suited to the state’s climate and pests may eventually yield a commercially viable hop crop, Friend and others say.
For now, local brewers are simply having fun playing with new flavors and aromas from a plant that, like grapes, expresses its unique terroir.
“Cascade grown in our neck of the woods smells a heck of a lot different than one grown in Sacramento or the Pacific Northwest,” Friend said.
“If malt is the body of a beer,” added Warnock, “hops is the personality.”
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