The 2021 hop harvest begins soon. Kansas Hop Company anticipates starting harvest as early as next week at their hop farm near Ottawa, Kansas.
Above: Ryan Triggs, Nick Feightner, and Clyde Sylvester of Kansas Hop Company. All images courtesy of Kansas Hop Company.
Hops are an essential ingredient that adds crucial bitterness, flavor, and aroma to beer. The quality, diversity, and quantity available from the annual hop harvest plays a key role in what brewers use to make beer. Naturally, craft brewers keep close tabs with suppliers on annual hop harvest forecasts. Ryan Triggs, Nick Feightner, and Clyde Sylvester of Kansas Hop Co. plan to start harvest in early August. Meanwhile, the hop harvest in the Pacific Northwest, where hop farms produce 97 percent of hops used in the U.S., typically runs mid-August through late September. Wildfires in Oregon and excessive smoke emanating from the Pacific Northwest (PNW) in 2021 are cause for concern. Locally, cool, wet weather in the Lower Midwest was a potential factor with this year’s hop harvest. Triggs discussed how this year’s harvest is shaping up compared to last year.
Kansas Hop Company established their three-acre hop farm in 2015 near Ottawa, Kansas. They grow Chinook, Cascade, Comet, Cashmere, Rakau, Triumph, Columbus, and wild Kansas hops. Their goal is to produce and supply fresh, high-quality Kansas-grown hops to breweries. Being based in the Midwest translates to reduced shipping costs and time. The company is able to deliver highly-desirable fresh wet hops as well as freshly-pelletized hops within 24 hours of harvest.
Heavy rainfall in May and June dampened early prospects for this year’s harvest. “Hops prefer a dry climate. The majority of North American hop production takes place in the Yakima Valley of Washington which is a high desert region,” Triggs says. “We have a much more humid environment here in Kansas.”
Unusually cool, wet weather during May led to a rough start for the growing season. “We have seen some disease pressure due to the wet conditions,” Triggs says. “It looks like things are going to dry out as we get into the harvest season.”
Kansas Hop Co. forecasts that the initial damp conditions shouldn’t affect overall yield or quality much this year. Wet conditions in the Midwest can spur growth of downy mildew, as opposed to powdery mildew more common in the PNW. “These mildews initially form on the leaves and, if they get bad enough, can begin affecting the cones and eventually kill the whole hop bine,” Triggs says.
“The mildew pressure is certainly variety dependent. Our Cascade plants are almost completely resistant to disease and pest issues. Our Columbus plants, on the other hand, can be very susceptible to mildew pressure if we don’t take preventative action to control it.”
Daylight and terroir impact the growth and characteristics of hops.
Sunshine and Terroir
Hops are daylight-sensitive plants. The amount of sunshine influences the growth and production of hop bines, the climbing, twining stem of the hop plant. The number of nodes on bines impacts the quantity of flowering hop cones harvested. Once bines have a certain number of nodes, they switch from lateral and vertical vegetative growth to reproductive growth of hop cones if the days aren’t long enough yet. “Ideally that switch happens around the summer solstice,” Triggs says. “Since we grow at a lower latitude (39 degrees) than typical hop growing regions (45-plus degrees), this has been an issue for us.”
Kansas Hop Co. faces days with fewer hours of daylight during the growing season than PNW hop farms. Lack of daylight can cause early flowering. “If the bines aren’t able to grow to the top of the 18-foot trellis before switching to reproductive mode, it greatly reduces our yields,” Triggs explains. The hop farm has adapted by using a completely different timeline for spring pruning, bine training, and harvesting dates compared to their PNW counterparts. The difference in daylight hours doesn’t affect the quality of the hops as much as it does the yield.
Terroir is another factor with growing hops similar to wine grapes. Soil composition, wind patterns, and topography play a role in the development of hops and grapes. For example, Chinook hops grown in the PNW exhibit piney characteristics. “In our climate and soil, Chinook has notes of pineapple, melon, and bubblegum,” Triggs says. “We decided to rebrand our Kansas-grown Chinook as Kanook, so our customers won’t expect one thing and get another. It’s been a great way to differentiate our products and offer something completely unique that is only available in our region.”
PNW hop farms regularly harvest more than 2,000 pounds per acre. By comparison, Kansas Hop Co. set an annual goal to harvest 1,000 pounds of hops per acre. “We surpassed that goal last year for the first time,” Triggs says. “It looks like we’ll be right around 1,000-1,100 pounds per acre this season. The plants take 3-4 year to fully mature. The first year is mostly focused on root development. We only yielded about 100 pounds per acre the first season, and the yields have increased gradually each season.”
Hops sales were down slightly for Kansas Hop Co. during the pandemic, due to overall beer production being down. Many breweries stockpiled on ingredients and still have hops in their freezers from the 2019 harvest. “It’s been a bit of a challenge from a sales standpoint, but we are just thankful that every single one of our 60-plus commercial brewery customers has remained open throughout the last 18 months,” Triggs says. “Purchasing hops from a small family-run farm like ours is not the cheapest option. It’s been incredible to see the continued support from our brewery partners when many of them have been struggling to keep the doors open since early in 2020.”
Triggs reflects on the prospect of developing hops into a commercially-viable agricultural product in the Midwest.
“Growing hops in Kansas is challenging every year. This year has been no different,” Triggs says. “Overall, we are extremely encouraged by the quality and quantity of this year’s crop. Hopefully, we can finish the season strong.”
Kansas Hop Co. plans to begin harvesting around the second week of August and will continue picking through Labor Day. Commencing harvest also means that the farm can supply fresh hops for a limited time to breweries. In turn the brewers will produce fresh hop (also referred to as wet hop or green hop) beers. In other words, brewers use unprocessed hop cones during the brewing process the same day they are harvested.
“This is only possible one time per year. It’s similar to using fresh herbs from the garden during cooking as opposed to dried herbs,” Triggs says. “Due to the outrageous cost incurred by overnighting hops from the Pacific Northwest, it hasn’t been possible for many craft breweries in the Kansas City area to make fresh hop beers. It’s been awesome to see so many of these batches being brewed around here the last several years now that local hops are available. These beers will be brewed throughout the region during the month of August and will be released in September. I encourage all craft beer lovers to seek these batches out when they are released as it’s a truly special drinking experience.”
Pete Dulin is the founder and editor of kcaletrail.com. His most recent book is Expedition of Thirst: Exploring Breweries, Distilleries and Wineries Across Central Kansas and Missouri. Pete’s other books include Kansas City Beer: A History of Brewing in the Heartland (The History Press, American Palate series), KC Ale Trail (out of print), and Last Bite: 100 Simple Recipes from Kansas City’s Best Chefs and Cooks.