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Local Hops Crops Hit The Spot for Brewers

San Diego is known for its craft beers, especially the bitter, aromatic IPAs from Ballast Point Brewing & Spirits Inc., Stone Brewing Co., Alpine Beer Co. and others.

Given their reputation for IPAs, San Diego’s dozens of brew houses have a fierce demand for hops, one of the four main ingredients for beer, along with water, yeast and malt.

While the climate and latitude don’t make it easy on hops farmers, about a dozen farms are carving out a niche business selling the crop to local breweries. They can’t come close to meeting the entire industry’s need —- the county’s hop harvest this year could have sustained at most several hundred barrels of beer —but farmers here are offering something commercial operations in Washington, Oregon and Idaho can’t match: fresh hops ready for brewing within hours of harvest.

The Pacific Northwest is better suited for hops, which need plenty of water and thrive in cooler winters, with the region accounting for more than 95 percent of the country’s total hop acreage. Hops can still grow in San Diego, though yields are not as high here. Many brewers use dry hops for their beers, crushed hops that are turned into pellets. Those seeking fresh, or wet, hops have to pay overnight freight fees to ensure the crop gets here within a day or two. Any longer and they start to lose their flavor.

“It’s possibly the biggest beer industry in the county and everyone’s getting their crops from Washington,” said Jordan Brownwood, co-owner of Nopalito Farms in Valley Center.

Within the past five years, a small contingent of hop farms has sought to correct the imbalance. The total acreage is still small: 20 acres this year, up from 15 last year. That’s a fraction of the 85 acres in California overall, mostly in the Central Valley, and almost nothing compared with the 45,000 acres nationwide.

The buyers include Monkey Paw Brewing Co., Nickel Beer Co. and Ballast Point’s Home Brew Mart, according to Lyle Kafader, owner of ZP Growers and a co-founder of the San Diego Hop

Growers Association. Wet hopped beer from local hops lets brewers offer a unique, seasonal product, she said, and most farmers here offer fresh hops.

The national average yield is about 2,000 pounds per acre, though it’s far less in San Diego, according to Kafader. Hop plants snake up strings tied to trellises, but don’t grow as tall here compared with Washington’s Yakima Valley.

Fresh Hops Niche

“We don’t have that huge spike in day length that triggers plants to flower,” she said. “The yield puts a cap on the size of the industry, so we’re never going to go head-to-head with the big boys in Washington for commodity hops. But we’ll be competitive on fresh hops. That’s where our market is.”

The average price of hops is $3.83 per pound, according to the Hop Growers of America, though that’s largely driven by less expensive dry hops. San Diego farmers can command upwards of $10 per pound.

Eric March, the other co-founder of the San Diego Hop Growers Association and co-owner of Star B Ranch and Hop Farm, said his farm is the largest commercial hop farm in the county. A few years ago it yielded about 3,000 pounds of crop, though viruses this year left him with only 100 pounds. While March struggled to sell all of his hops in years past, he said another 3,000 pound year would sell quickly now.

“Brewers are willing to pay a premium price for local hops,” March said.

Monkey Paw’s director of brewing operations Cosimo Sorrentino didn’t use local wet hops before 2013, when he teamed up with March to pick crops by hand and create a beer. This year, Sorrentino bought about 500 pounds of hops from Nopalito and others, leading to three beers at Monkey Paw and another at South Park Brewing Co., where Sorrentino also works.

“Wet hops have a very unique flavor,” he said. “You get more of the earth and the spice and the raw hop flavor.”

Sorrentino said there are “buzzword” hops in the Northwest that taste of tropical fruit or have woody flavors, but the types that grow best in San Diego have more classic hoppy notes of orange peel and pine resin. The beers cost a few dollars more than dry hop beers due to the added logistics and hops prices. He said San Diego hop farmers will likely never become a giant industry as wet hop beers are desirable in part because they can only be made in the fall.

“I don’t think it’s something I could do if there was a hydroponic hops farm and you could do it all year round,” Sorrentino said. “For the consumer, they’re willing to pay that extra cost for a seasonal treat.”

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