The jewel in the crown of American hop farming

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The jewel in the crown of American hop farming

Tired but elated, 39 intrepid Instagrammers have just returned from the festival camping trip of a lifetime, courtesy of our Chicago-based craft brewer, Goose Island.

They were all winners of Goose Island’s Road to the Harvest Challenge, which invited people to submit photos of their adventures to Instagram using the hashtag #RoadToTheHarvest. Their prize was a three-day adventure at the extraordinary Elk Mountain Hop Farm, in northern Idaho, USA.

Nestling in a beautiful wilderness, just a few miles from the border between the United States and Canada, Elk Mountain is the jewel in the crown of American hop farming. At 1,700 acres, it is the largest contiguous (fully joined together) hop farm in the world and is home to more than 50 hop varieties – many of them experimental. Such an array of hops is music to the ears of Goose Island’s brewing team, which enjoys the pick of the farm’s production.

The competition winners were able to see Elk Mountain’s hop fields in all their glory, as their trip was timed to take place shortly before this year’s harvest got under way. Harvest time is when the farm truly comes to life because – unlike many other forms of agriculture – hop farming is still largely done by skilled hand, rather than heavy machinery.

This process begins when the hop plant is just a tiny sprout, which is misted with water for 10 to 12 days before being planted in a small pot and placed in a greenhouse. The hop plant builds its roots in the pot before it is transferred to one of the farm’s large outdoor beds, where it can become established. Once the plant is sufficiently big and strong, it is planted out in the hop fields, ready to begin producing its aromatic flowers.

Each hop field at Elk Mountain is characterized by tall trellises, which are strung with twine around 20 feet (six meters) in length. This is because – when it comes to climbing – hops are the mountaineers of the plant world! In fact, a hop will grow up to 20 inches (51 centimeters) a week during the peak growing season.

When the hops are ready for harvest, the tall cones are cut from the trellises and then the most important part of the process begins – kilning. This is a heat-assisted drying procedure that reduces the water content in the hops from around 80% to something close to 15%. Kilning must be carefully controlled. If the hops are heated too much they will be spoiled.

After harvest, the hop plants go into a form of hibernation, concentrating all their energy in their roots. This leaves the fields looking barren throughout the winter months, but the growth cycle begins again come spring, when the first green shoots emerge and can be trained up the trellises once more.

Did you know? Some facts about Elk Mountain Hop Farm and its precious crop

  • The property was home to a herd of around 130 elk before it was turned over to hop growing – hence the farm’s name
  • At 1,700 acres, Elk Mountain is more than three times the size of the average US hop farm
  • Elk Mountain grows many of the hops used by Goose Island, including Cascade,                 Amarillo, Mt Hood and Saaz
  • It takes two growing seasons before a hop plant is ready to offer its full yield
  • Hop harvesting requires a head for heights and an ability to move quickly – some varieties have a picking window of just five days
  • Throughout harvest season, Elk Mountain operates 24/7, with more than 100 migrant farmers and their families joining the permanent team to get the job done

If you’d like to know more about Goose Island and its passion for craft beer, you can visit the brewer’s website here.