by Karl H. Kazaks
In 2007, the USDA — acting on the recommendation of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) — declared that brewers could make organic beer without organic hops. Since then the USDA (again acting on the NOSB’s advice) has reversed itself and ruled that, starting on Jan. 1 2013, organic beer must contain organic hops.
What happened? The USDA — and the organic industry — wants to promote the production and marketing of organic products. But sometimes it’s hard to find organic sources of smaller components of multi-ingredient products. So the USDA ruled that so long as an ingredient comprises less than 5 percent of the weight of a product’s dry ingredients, is difficult to source in organic form, and is included on its list of exempted ingredients (proposed by the NOSB), organic producers can use a non-organic form.
There’s no question hops are (weight-wise) a small component of beer. At most, hops comprise two percent of the weight of a beer’s dry ingredients — and that’s for the hoppiest brews. Where the brewing industry and the organic hops industry differed was on the question of whether organic hops are hard to source.
In 2007 the USDA agreed with beer producers, who claimed that it was hard to find a consistent supply of quality organic hops.
But Pat Leavy, of Butteville, OR saw it as a chicken-and-egg problem. There could be an adequate supply of organic hops, he figured, if there was enough demand — which could be the case if brewers had to use organic hops in organic beer.
So in 2009, along with a number of other organic hop growers, Leavy formed the American Organic Hop Growers Association (AOHGA) and started lobbying for a change to the USDA’s standards. Thanks to their efforts, in 2010 the USDA reversed the decision, announcing that hops would be removed from the exempted products list on the first day of 2013.
With that bureaucratic hurdle cleared, now Leavy and the AOHGA can focus on growing, promoting, and marketing their hops.
Leavy grows hops both conventionally and organically, about 30 acres of each. One reason brewers were initially reluctant to embrace organic hops is early versions of the product had sub-optimal brewing value — less than adequate bitterness. Early attempts at organic hops had low brewing value because growers were picking early — before maximum brewing value developed — to avoid pest pressure. Since then, however, with better breeding and pest management, growers have been able to allow hops to reach peak brewing value while using organic production methods.
Dealing with pests is the top challenge for organic hop producers. “No question pests are the limiting factor,” Leavy said. “But I like the challenge of growing organic hops.”
Each growing area has its own pest problems. In Washington’s Yakima Valley — where most of domestic organic hops production is found — spider mites and powdery mildew are the primary challenges. At Leavy’s farm in the Willamette Valley, the major challenge is downy mildew.
At present Leavy uses copper hydroxide to control downy mildew. He’s also several years into a farm-based breeding program to develop varieties resistant to downy mildew.
“I want to diminish as much as possible the use of fungicides,” Leavy said, “while obviously maintaining brewing value.”
Leavy grows two varieties of conventional hops — Nugget and Crystal — which he sells through dealers. Much of that production is exported. The organic hops he direct markets himself through his business The Oregon Hophouse (www.theoregonhophouse.com).
Both Crystal and Nugget — as well as the highly popular variety Cascade — are highly susceptible to downy mildew. Leavy would like to grow them organically at his farm, which is why he has a breeding program to come up with better downy mildew resistance in those varieties.
The process of breeding requires patience. Hops have male and female plants. Leavy plants them next to each other, collect seeds, propagates seedlings, and then grows the new generation to see how they perform against downy mildew. Since it is a systemic disease, it takes at least three years to see how susceptible (or, hopefully, resistant) any one plant is to the disease.
“We are making some progress,” Leavy said. “We have some cultivars which do show better resistance.”
Conventionally, hops are grown on trellises which extend 18 feet above ground. Each spring a string is stretched from where the perennial plants are located in the ground to the top of the trellis. The plants can be productive for as long as 30 years, but with recent improvement in genetics, most growers convert their fields more frequently than that.
“With recent active breeding programs,” Leavy said, “varieties can become obsolete.” The oldest plants at Leavy’s farm are 22 years old.
Leavy’s harvesting facility, build in 1989, encompasses 16,000 square feet. After a machine strips hops from the vine, they are dried to less than 10 percent moisture in one of three drying kilns and then compressed into 200 pound bales.
Growing organic hops also means a different approach to trellis management. When putting a field into new production, only certain materials can be used to construct the trellis. Leavy used juniper poles. Growers converting an existing hop stand to organic can use their existing trellises but when those trellises need repair, growers must replace them with organically permissible products.
In between rows of hops, Leavy plants buckwheat as a summer cover crop. It works well, he said, because it grows quickly and handles the shade from the hop vines.
“I’m still experimenting with winter cover crops,” Leavy said. “Slugs have been annihilating our rye, vetch — all that expensive organic seed…With organics you win some and lose some — but I haven’t found the winning side of slugs at all. They won’t even eat weeds.”
Leavy thinks the progress made in organic hops production has also helped non-organic production.
“I grow conventionally, I use insecticides, but I’ve realized organic has a lot to contribute to agriculture. I see the positives of organics, but not from anti-pesticide point of view. There’s a lot of benefit to the soil.”
“The craft brew trend is still growing,” Leavy said. “It’s less than 10 percent of the marketplace. The growth of the craft beer industry has halted the decline of hop production, because they use more hops per barrel.
“Over 10 percent of hops producers today grow organic hops. What other crop has that percentage of growers growing organic. That’s a pretty high percentage.”
And that’s a pretty big change — mostly since 2007. And in large part due to the efforts of Pat Leavy.
by Karl H. Kazaks