Touring North America’s biggest hop farm By Colin Anderson
To brew beer you need four key ingredients: water, yeast, malt and hops. Clean water makes for a crisp beverage, and yeast is used to convert sugars into alcohol. Malt is where the color and flavor profile comes from, and hops add to the aroma and bitterness. A stroll down any grocery store aisle and you’ll find such a wide range of choices that it’s hard to fathom they all come from the same four basic ingredients. If you’ve tipped back a Bud Light, Goose Island IPA, Elysian Dragon Tooth Stout or Ten Barrel Trail Beer, then you’ll want to raise your glass and toast to one of the men who supplies the beer industry with one of its key ingredients.
Ed Atkins is a fourth generation farmer whose family continues to work the lands along the Kootenai River Valley in the far reaches of Northern Idaho. About 10 miles south of the Canadian border you’ll find a lush valley surrounded by towering mountains. All kinds of crops flourish here including hops, and Ed and his team have more than a few plants to keep an eye on.
Elk Mountain Farms was built in 1987 and originally covered 600 acres. In 1989, the farm was expanded by another 600 acres, and in 1991 an additional 500 acres were added. The 1,700 acres easily makes Elk Mountain Farms the largest hop farm in North America. Ed is the general manager of the massive operation, something he didn’t see coming when he started here more than 30 years ago.
“I didn’t know anything about hops,” he recalled. In the late ‘80s Ed was in the logging industry when he was laid off due to slowing production. He knew the person who was starting up the farm and was asked if he wanted a job. “I thought I’d work there for a few months then head back into the woods again, but here I am,” he said.
Ed now oversees a full-time staff of 21 and seasonal workers that during harvest can swell to 220. He’s held numerous positions from mechanic to manager to business operations, and GM for the last 11 years. From having no knowledge of hops, Ed is now a walking encyclopedia. “We have a rich, fertile valley here with lots of irrigation, long summer days and cool nights. Hops enjoy the 80 degree days and the 60 degree nights,” he explained. Elk Mountain Farms is situated on similar latitude to hop farms in Germany. This was taken into account when finding a location for the massive operation. Hallertau and Saaz are some of the oldest hops known to man and do very well in Germany. These were the first varieties planted at Elk Mountain and were also very successful. During the early days of the farm, the hops were being utilized for Budweiser’s flagship products Bud and Bud Light. As the craft beer movement began to swing back up again, it was Ed’s job to bring in additional varieties to meet brewers’ demand for new products. “We started with two and are now growing seven varieties,” said Ed. These include Amarillo and the newest rage Citra, used in juicy or hazy-style IPAs. It’s a market that’s much different from when Ed began his career at Elk Mountain. “Today’s consumers are a lot more fickle, and I see there is virtually no loyalty to brands. It seems to always be about what’s new versus what’s good.”
With that in mind, the experimental side of the farm has also ramped up. There was a time when Ed and his team were only experimenting with a half dozen plants; today that number has skyrocketed to 1,500. “We are always looking for the next big thing as there are two big niches today: drinking what’s local or regional or what’s the new latest and greatest.” While the experimental side is an operation of itself, the main farm is where the vast majority of the work comes from. A single acre on the farm contains 889 plants, meaning at full capacity there are more than 1.5 million plants that are tended to. “Hops are high maintenance and high labor,” explained Ed. Hop bines grow vertically, and each bine on the farm will reach a height of about 20 feet. Elk Mountain uses a core yarn that is made from coconut husk fibers as a way for the plant to wrap itself and grow vertically. Workers need to put these up at the start of each year. Most plants require two strings each. This translates to approximately 80 million feet or 15,000 miles worth of string put up by hand each and every year.
Unfortunately for the team, the bines need assistance if they are going to reach their full potential, which means training. Each May workers go out for the first training, which involves manually wrapping each bine around the string. About a month later it’s done again. Keep in mind, there are more than a million plants—and this is done twice! “We do this so that all the bines grow to an even length because we want them to all grow and bloom at the same time.”
About 100 to 150 workers tackle these jobs in the spring and summer.
There is a small window when the hop cones are ready to harvest. This is usually in August, and that’s when Elk Mountain Farms really begins to ramp up. Two-hundred-and-twenty seasonal workers are brought in to work around the clock. “We’ve done it in 17 days, but typically it’s about 20 or 21 days,” said Ed. Each worker is set to a specific task to ensure everything is done correctly and timely so the farm doesn’t miss its limited window.
Hop combines are sent out into the fields. There are only about 30 of these in the U.S., and Elk Mountain has six of them. “You have to build them yourself,” said Ed. “We can’t just call up John Deere and have them make us one.” The massive machines gather the whole bine and begin separating out the cones from the rest of the plant. Bines are sent through an unloader, which breaks up the clumps and starts to separate the cones from the rest of the plant. The first cleaning done in the field is just step one of the process.
The harvested hops are brought into two massive structures on property to further separate the cones from waste materials. The cones run through an intricate system in which they are bounced on mesh, blasted by air and shaken again. In all they go through six different stations including mesh grates, arm piercers, trammels, a harp and finally dribble tables. (If it’s at all confusing, it should be. Just know that by the time they come out they are cleared of any excess material.) Materials separated from the cones are composted and go back into the fields to be used on the next crop. The next step in the process is drying the hops. This is done in a massive kiln powered by a 9 million BTU propane burner and a 75,000 CFM fan. The hops are dried at a temperature of around 130 to 145 degrees. Once out of the kiln a conveyor drops them into another area atop a cloth for them to cool. These tables are filled about 30-inches deep, and it takes anywhere from four to 13 hours for the hops to hit their preferred moisture level of 9.5 percent. “Operators feel by hand and read the moisture levels. Once we hit that mark, they are sent to be bailed,” explained Ed.
At this point the hops are ready to be used and can be shipped to distributors and brewers around North America. The hops are run up an additional set of belts and dropped into a weight box. They fall into a cloth, and once 200 pounds are in, they are sealed up by hand using two commercial-grade sewing machines. Each bail is labeled, and they are ready to be shipped.
When harvest is complete there is still plenty of work to be done preparing for next season before winter sets in. Workers stay on until around Thanksgiving time, when things slow enough for everyone to catch their breath, if only for a short time.
For Ed, the entire experience is something he didn’t envision but wouldn’t change. He’s been able to work alongside a passionate group, many of whom started when the farm was built and retired after never leaving. “I’ve had great mentors here; the people that help you, I owe a debt of gratitude to them,” said Ed.
As you look around the Northwest, new breweries continue to pop up seemingly on a monthly basis. Competition for taps at bars and restaurants is fierce, and brewers are altering their marketing and creating new styles in ways they didn’t have to when the craft beer renaissance started again in the early 2000s. While it seems like something that’s never-ending and here to stay, Ed isn’t so sure. “Craft died in the mid-’90s and came back again in the mid-2000s. It’s usually about a 10-year cycle,” Ed predicted. Ed points to consumer data showing big gains in the wine and whisky industry taking a bite into beer sales. Hop-free spiked seltzers are also exploding onto the scene, all products competing in one of the biggest global industries.
Ed has been through it before, and the farm is ready to adapt to what consumers want. If brewers continue looking for the next new hop flavor, Ed’s team will keep the experimental varieties going strong. If consumers begin to pull away from a saturated craft beer market, they’ll adjust for that too, all part of 32-years experience in farming one of the more unique crops on earth.
The relative isolation of Elk Mountain Farms ensures that encroachment likely will never become an issue. Only a few thousand people call the area home, and while there has been growth in the previous 30 years, it’s unlikely to ever impact the farm, its space or the river which it is reliant on. The scale of the operation and which hops are growing might change, but as long as there is beer, the farm will continue to supply some of the biggest names in the industry.
With more than three decades under his belt, Ed knows his career is coming to an end in the near future. “At some point we have to hand this off to the next generation, and as I’m nearing the end of my career, it’s definitely something you think more about,” he said. Ed credits his mentors for helping him get to the position he is in and hopes that his mentorship of other employees will keep that cycle going. One-and-a-half million plants is a lot to look after, and it takes a special talent to do so. The next time you pop the top of your favorite long neck or order up that dry-hopped Citra bomb double IPA, give a cheers to Ed, after all, it wouldn’t be so refreshing without a whole lot of hard work.