Ag at Large: Hops adapt to valley climate

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With the number and types of beers and the people who want to drink them proliferating, the need for the agricultural crop of hops as a beer ingredient has resulted in at least one large hop orchard in Central California.

The first harvest, which began mid-August, will tell how well the crop has adapted to warm San Joaquin Valley conditions.

Recent production of hops has centered in the cooler climes of Washington and Oregon, although an area a few miles east of Sacramento produced the crop for years. Housing and commercial development, more than weather, caused its demise about 15 years ago. It was memorialized by television chronicler Huell Howser a few years before his death.

The new Central California hop yard is an extension of Simonian Farms, one of the largest and most progressive grower/shipper of both summer tree fruits, citrus and table grapes in the tree and vine-conscious San Joaquin Valley.

The hop yard’s characteristic 18-foot-tall trellis system keeps it from being overshadowed by the huge, modern and well-appointed buildings that comprise the adjacent packing facility. Manager Grant Simonian likens it to an overgrown trellis system for raisin grape production.      

The hop plants push upward along the slanting trellis wires, producing the flower-like hops as they grow. Harvest involves stripping the hops from the wire-supported plants into large bins.  Some will be dried, but most will be packaged fresh for delivery to beer makers. The brewers meter the amount of hops to their liking as they mix them into batches of their favorite brews.

The enthusiasm of several beer makers in the Fresno area was a primary motivation for Simonian to launch his hop growing enterprise. Production of a wide selection of popular craft beers has revised beer consumption in the Fresno area and beyond as a number of the breweries  ship their products for public and individual enjoyment.

For Simonian, the control of ingredients to sustain the hop crop is a major challenge. One of the most critical is irrigation water. Because hops plants have traditionally shown a sensitivity to hot weather, regulation of irrigation inputs has been carefully measured, and will be open to adjustment in subsequent years    

Carefully measured growth of the hop plant with its flowers is another essential production factor. It is believed that the rate of growth along the trellis wires has a direct affect on the flavor of the hops. Fertilizer inputs can have a direct influence on how fast the hop vine pushes upward in the growing season.

Like raisin-producing grapevines, the major cane of the hop plant is severed and discarded after or during harvest. Each basic hop plant (vine) begins to push a new master cane upward along the towering trellis wire as the growing season begins. A critical year-long growing season begins.

One of the major challenges for each hop plant in the growing season is frost. That makes December and January critical months, with occasional spillover into November and February. Frost protection measures have not been established yet, but they will be carefully evaluated this winter. The Central Valley’s dreaded fog actually provides some frost protection.      

Simonian is enthusiastic about the new hop-growing enterprise, as are several local craft beer producers. Major national beer companies could be next.        

The rest of us might do well to learn to identify a hop yard when we see one, just so we can point it out to visiting relatives and friend, especially those from Milwaukee, St. Louis or Golden, Colorado. It might make them thirsty.

Don Curlee
Don Curlee is your man when it comes to Agriculture. His Ag Alert column in our publication is sure to inform you on what you need to know when it comes to the agricultural industry.