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Raw Materials: Hop Producers Cope with Crisis

The pandemic’s unpredictability also affects the laborers, farmers, and dealers who supply breweries’ raw ingredients. Their experience, flexibility, and optimism are helping to buffer a potentially volatile market.

Ben Keene Oct 13, 2020 - 12 min read

Raw Materials: Hop Producers Cope with Crisis Primary Image

Photo: Jamie Bogner

John Coleman is a sixth-generation hop farmer. In 1847, his ancestors headed west from Iowa and ended up in St. Paul, a tiny town founded by Catholic missionaries in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Starting with a small plot of land, the Colemans slowly expanded their acreage and now grow a variety of crops including hazelnuts, hemp, and vegetables, as well as about two dozen varieties of hops. Today, Coleman Agriculture is a grower-owner in the Yakima Chief Hops network and a partner of Oregon-based wholesaler Indie Hops. In fact, about 1,800 of the company’s 7,500 acres are dedicated to the perennial crop.

August was the start of the harvest for Coleman and other hop farmers across the Pacific Northwest. Typically, that means nonstop activity for the better part of eight weeks. However, this year will not be the same, as the global pandemic and the accompanying recession have complicated things for the brewing industry and its suppliers. With brewers reeling from lost draft sales and scrambling to make contingency plans for the future, growers and processors must nonetheless press ahead with their seasonal work, swiftly converting fragrant cones into firm pellets to preserve their desirable oils and acids. But to protect employees and customers from the virus, and to limit their financial exposure, farms have made changes.

Scaling Back, Keeping Safe

“We realized that things were going to be different, and we wanted to get ahead of it,” Coleman says. “Some of the dealers asked us to take out acreage—some of the varieties with softer demand like Simcoe, Cascade, and Centennial. We also elected not to string Meridian.”

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Author of The Great Northeast Brewery Tour, a contributor to The Oxford Companion to Beer, and former editor of BeerAdvocate, Ben Keene has judged beer competitions across the US and has spoken at industry conferences and conventions. He lives in Seattle.