North Coast Brewing Company employees, with owner Mark Ruedrich center, took a day to learn to hand-process locally grown hops at Fortunate Farm in Caspar.
In a county once known for hop production and home to the namesake town, Hopland, local hops farmers now carry forth a piece of history in partnership with North Coast Brewing Company. This summer, two Mendocino County hops growers contacted the brewery about utilizing their crops and company president Mark Ruedrich eagerly embraced the opportunity. The result: North Coast’s first batch of locally-sourced fresh hop beer is currently brewing in Fort Bragg and will be released by the end of the month as a special version of Acme Pale Ale.
Farmer Steve Clark of Laytonville was surprised at the eager reception by North Coast, “I have enjoyed their beer for years and one day I just got a wild hair to call him. I thought, they’re so big and I’m so small. But, Mark was really excited about using our hops.”
North Coast Brewing acquired over one hundred pounds of Mendocino County hops, grown in Laytonville & Ukiah. In order to process the fresh hops, the flowers had to be removed by hand. So North Coast Brewing Company hosted a hop-picking party at Fortunate Farm in Caspar to give brewery employees a hands-on experience with the plant that makes it all possible. Hops grow as very tall bines (not vines), which are distinguished by the spikes that grow on the stalks to help them climb. The trellised plants reach heights of approximately fourteen feet, with large grape-like leaves, and must be cut down to harvest the conical flowers.
In mid-August, Steve Clark & Louise Donaldson of S & L Farm on Spy Rock Road, north of Laytonville brought in a truckload of hops for the harvest party. They arrived at Fortunate Farm with four different varietals of hops and showed North Coast Brewing employees how to hand-harvest the flowers or “cones,” which involves carefully plucking them off the stems. The hop plant is related to the thistle family, and the spines on the bines can be irritating to the skin, so employees donned rubber globes and filled boxes full of fragrant hops flowers, separated by variety. Clark selected the varieties he grew after interviewing several brewers. The fresh hop beer will include many well-loved favorites including Cascade, Cluster, Nugget, and Chinook.
For this batch, North Coast also acquired an additional seventy-five pounds of hops grown by farmer Joseph Brinkley in Ukiah, along the Russian River. The Brewery sources most of their hops from commercial growers in the Northwestern U.S., though inland Mendocino County’s climate is well-suited to hop production. Clark says that this year’s yield was down from years past, however, possibly due to late frost in April, higher summer temps, and the drought affecting the water table. He plans to focus on improving soil health and continue testing different varietals to increase production and yield.
Hop plants can even grow here on the coast, given the right conditions. During the harvest party, Clark consulted with Gowan Batist of Fortunate Farm about setting up an experimental plot in Caspar on one of the warmer south-facing hills on her property. As local beer gets even more local, coastal residents can look forward to tasting the fresh-hop version of Acme Pale Ale at the Brewery’s Taproom by the end of September. The beer will also be released to California distributors for availability on tap throughout the state.
by Sara Bodnar