Vines of freshly-harvested hops sit on a trailer three weeks ago waiting to be processed and have their cones removed. Once a major California crop, Fowler Packing Company, Inc. is looking to help revive hops growing and sell it to breweries in the Valley and other parts of they state. Source: Fowler Packing Company, Inc.
Written by David Castellon
Brewing beer is old hat for Brandon Broussard, owner of Tactical Ops Brewing in Fresno.
But he’s taken particular interest in a test batch that may be ready for tasting some time next week.
A lot is riding on whether that beer has the taste and aroma Broussard is looking for, as it was brewed from hops grown on a farm west of Fowler. Several other craft beer makers are also experimenting with the local crop.
Most breweries get their hops from farms in Washington State and Oregon.
While hops was a big crop in California in the early 1900s, farmers shifted away from it in the years that followed, to the point that commercial hops growing was virtually non-existent in this state by the time the earliest craft beer makers here launched their businesses in the mid ‘80s.
Hops is starting to make a comeback in California — driven by the explosive growth of mostly small craft beer makers in the state — with small farms popping up mostly in the Sacramento, San Diego and San Luis Obispo areas.
Now Fowler Packing Company, Inc., which grows, packages and ship nuts and fruit, is looking to get into the hops-growing business, forming a division within the company — Golden State Hops — and planting 10 acres last year to test out the new crop. The action came in response to the large number of craft beer makers that have come into California in recent years, said Grant Parnagian, a vice president for Fowler Packing and manager of the company’s hops farm.
“There was a demand for it,” said Parnagian, whose family owns Fowler Packing, adding that his research indicated many Valley breweries would prefer using locally-sourced hops over dried hops “pellets” coming from the Pacific Northwest.
Part of the reason is the potential savings in shipping costs, which in some cases breweries could forego by driving directly to the farms and picking up the hops, an essential ingredient in beer that determines its aroma and bitterness.
“I’ve been a big proponent for a long time,” said Broussard, adding that he has been trying for years to convince the Parnagian family, with whom he is personally acquainted, to try its hand on growing hops.
But cost savings are just part of the reason Broussard and other California craft beer brewers want California-grown hops.
Many would like nothing better than to be able to put a label on their cans and bottles stating that their beer is made entirely with California-grown ingredients, Parnagian explained.
“Saying it’s California-grown, that carries a lot of weight,” he said.
And then there are the advantages of using fresh or “wet” hops.
The flowers on Hops vines — referred to as “cones” or “strobiles” — generally need to be brewed within three days after being harvested from their vines before they break down and becomes unusable, so most major hops growers dry their cones and ship them to breweries as pellets.
That makes a difference in beer making, Broussard said, explaining “It’s like a flavor profile difference. It’s like using fresh garlic versus dried garlic [in a dish]. It’s just going to bring a crisper, fresher flavor to it.”
The same holds true for using wet cones instead of dried pellets, he noted.
“It’s a huge marketing advantage when you have the freshness of it,” he said of selling beer made with wet hops.
Smell the flowers
Of course, all that will depend on how beers made with the Valley-grown hops tastes and smells, which is what Broussard and the other brewers that have bought or been given this year’s first harvestable crop from Fowler Packing’s field are trying to determine.
While Broussard couldn’t yet be sure how his test beer might turn out, he said he was encouraged that the hops he received from had good aroma.
Based on his own research, Parnagian estimated less than 100 acres of hops was being grown in California when his company started its experiment, while the California Craft Beer Association (CCBA) puts the number of craft breweries in this state at about 900. An informal survey by the Business Journal puts more than 20 of those breweries in Fresno, Kings, Tulare and Madera counties.
In fact, the CCBA estimates that more than 91 percent of Californians live within 10 miles of a brewery.
As such, Parnagian said, there appears to be plenty of room to start growing hops here and become part of California’s $7.3 billion craft beer industry.
As for why farmers stopped growing hops in California, Ro Nayyar, who has been growing hops commercially for about five years near Yuba City, said the start of the decline probably began after Prohibition, when many German immigrants with beer-making skills migrated to the Pacific Northwest and started drying their hops so it could be transported across the country.
“That was a big game changer. Nobody was pelletizing hops here,” he said.
But the craft beer boom and the interest in locally-sourced ingredients is reviving the hops industry here, said Nayyar, noting that many Sacramento-area breweries want ingredients that are locally sourced, from within a 50-mile radius.
It helps that hops can be grown in most parts of California, with its hot summers and relatively mild winters, which the plants prefer over long, cold winters that can kill their roots, according to a University of California Cooperative Extension report.
“There are some challenges for growing hops locally, and the main thing is competing with the ‘big guys’ in Oregon and Washington,” Nayyar said.
“Some are growing proprietary hops that we can’t grow” without their permission because they developed those particular varieties, he explained.
Proof of concept
Whether hops become a business for Fowler Packing isn’t clear. Besides determining if brewers here like their product, Parnagian said a determination has to be made on which of the five varieties of hops his team has worked with grows well here in the Valley — though so far only one is showing problems.
It may not be until next year that the plants will be mature enough to produce full harvests.
Still, the company seemed to show enough confidence in its new venture to put some of its recently-harvested hops on display with its other products last month at its booth at the California Food Expo at the Fresno Convention Center.
“Nobody had ever done it here in the Fresno area,” said Parnagian.