Standing Stone Brewing Company

hops

Behind Your Brew: Winter and Spring at Alpha Beta Hops Farm

We love the greenery and color spring brings. As brewers, we’re particularly excited to see hops pop out of the ground after hibernating for the winter. We asked our friends Steve and Rebecca Pierce, of Ashland’s own Alpha Beta Hops, about what’s happened since our virtual visit with them last fall.

They’ve been growing organic Cascade hops for several years (now joined by sons, Spencer and Morgan), with plans to expand acreage and varietals to meet growing demand for this essential ingredient in beer. (Photos by Rebecca Pierce)

 What’s the winter like at the hop yard?

With the hops cut and put to bed with a covering of straw, the hop yard is pretty quiet in the winter. It’s a great time for marketing our fresh hops to local breweries and home brewers. Winter is also the time we “retired” folks travel. Once we get the pasture grass clumps and weeds eradicated, we plan to plant a clover cover crop over the winter. For now, sheep, chicken and duck grazing supply nitrogen.

What does spring bring your way?

We start reviving the hop yard in February when we stretch wire trellis and repair anchors and irrigation hoses. In March, we put up 5,000-6,000 organic paper strings and anchor them near the budding hop plants. Hop bines wind around these as they reach for the sun.  We’ve been very lucky to be helped by WWOOFer (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms) volunteers, who work hard in exchange for hands-on experience on an organic farm. By May, the bines grab the strings and turn the fields into leafy green forests of hop bines.

What’s your favorite aspect of spring?

After a cold, windy winter it’s exciting to walk out into the field, which had snow on it a week before, and see our hops starting to push up through the straw (photo on right). We seem to be in a microclimate that’s protected by nearby foothills. So far, the hops seem to be able to survive anything Mother Nature sends our way. Spring in the Rogue Valley is a wonderful time of year, with everything turning lush and green. Although our winters are usually mild, it’s nice to have the rains stop, the mud dry up and hearty sprouts popping up everywhere.

What else do you grow at your farm?

Like so many others, we’re striving to become more self sufficient and make a smaller footprint on this earth. We have a quarter acre organic vegetable garden, egg-producing chickens, turkeys, sheep and two miniature donkeys.

Our son, Morgan, and his fiancé, Jessica, design and coordinate our vegetable and flower garden. Jessica designs the most beautiful beds, incorporating flowers with vegetables, rotating the crops annually, and using marigolds and other natural methods to control any unwanted pests. After each year’s crop, they collect seeds to make their own starts in the greenhouse. This year we harvested our first batch of asparagus, enjoyed fresh organic produce all winter and just finished off the bit of over-wintered broccoli. Jessica and Morgan like to introduce us to many heirloom vegetables so we never know what wonderful treats are in store.

What a hoppening place – we can’t wait for the harvest! (Volunteers welcome and it’s FUN – contact the Pierces.) Until then, we’ll enjoy one our the craft beers we make with their wonderful hops. As Steve and Rebecca would say, “Prosit!”

Hop, Hop Hooray! Harvest at Alpha Beta

Late summer is peak harvest season—one of our favorite times of the year! As a brewery, we’re especially excited that the hops harvest is underway at Alpha Beta Hops right here in Ashland, OR. Earlier this year, we paid a virtual visit to Alpha Beta to give you a taste of what hops farming entails. We thought we’d go back to give you a peek into the process of how hops get from plant to pint, too.

Alpha Beta Hops is a family operation, run by Steve and Rebecca Pierce, and their sons, Spencer and Morgan. They currently grow about 1.5 acres of organic Cascade hops, prized by craft brewers like us. The Pierces undertake each step with great care and attention to quality, and incorporate sustainable practices throughout, brewing great things for beer lovers, people and planet.

The harvest involves about a week of long days. When hops are at their peak, good producers know they need to pick, process and pack their crop quickly to maintain optimal flavor and aroma. Following farm tradition, four generations of the family pitched in, with volunteers including friends and folks from World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF).

The process begins by cutting hop bines, which grow on tall trellises. Alpha Beta uses heavyweight paper string for trellises, a renewable material they compost to feed next year’s crop. Always innovating, the Pierces built an harvesting attachment for their tractor, consisting of a platform they stand on to cut and a chute they load with hops.

The Pierces take each load of bines to a worktable where everyone carefully plucks off hops and places them in buckets. The pile shrinks quickly as workers enjoy chatting and enjoying the Rogue Valley’s beautiful views and clean air. The farm also has free-range chickens that like to check out the action, though they haven’t yet been trained to help.

The Pierce family is on the right (Photo: M. Schweisguth)

Full buckets are dumped into drying bins heated with a passive solar system. The building with the drying bins has a greenhouse on one side of its wall and the drying bin area on the other. Hot air from the greenhouse blows toward the drying bins. Workers gently rake the hops to ensure even drying.

After the hops are dry, they’re packed into bags for customers, ranging from individual homebrewers to brewing supply stores and brewpubs like Standing Stone Brewing Co. Hops are also great in herbal teas and tinctures, since they contain compounds that aid relaxation.

Volunteers from WWOOF (Photo: Steve Pierce)

Despite the long days, Rebecca finds the time and energy to whip up a delicious lunch each day. When the day’s work is done, of course folks enjoy a well-deserved IPA to celebrate their progress.

Thanks to the Pierces for doing what you do with such care for the hops, the planet and everyone involved. Making the best craft beer requires the best ingredients, and we’re grateful for farms like Alpha Beta that deliver that, always with a smile. Cheers!