Ho harvest Getty Images
Women picking hops around 1910.

Ag at Large: Hop crop adapts to Central Valley climate

Sustaining a hop crop is a major challenge; the most critical is irrigation water

With the number and types of beers and the people who want to drink them proliferating, the need for the agricultural crop of hops as a beer ingredient has resulted in at least one large hop orchard in Central California. 

The first harvest, which began in mid-August, will tell how well the crop has adapted to warm San Joaquin Valley (SJV) conditions.

Recent production of hops has centered in the cooler climes of Washington and Oregon, although an area a few miles east of Sacramento once produced the crop for years. Housing and commercial development, more than weather, caused its demise about 15 years ago. It was memorialized by television chronicler Huell Houser a few years before his death.

Akin to Simonian Farms 

The new Central California hop yard is an extension of Simonian Farms, one of the largest and most progressive growers-shippers of summer tree fruit, citrus, and table grapes in the tree- and vine-conscious SJV.

The hop yard’s characteristic 18-foot-tall trellis system keeps it from being overshadowed by the huge, modern, and well-appointed buildings that comprise the adjacent packing facility. Manger Grant Simonian likens it to an overgrown trellis system for raisin grape production.

The hop plants push upward along the slanting trellis wires, producing the flower-like hops as they grow. Harvest involves stripping the hops from the wire-supported plants into large bins.  Some will be dried, but most will be packaged fresh for delivery to beer makers. The brewers meter the amount of hops to their liking and mix it into batches of favorite brews.

The enthusiasm of several beer makers in the Fresno area was a primary motivation for Simonian to launch his hop-growing enterprise. The production of a wide selection of popular craft beers has revised beer consumption in the Fresno area and beyond as a number of the breweries ship the products for public and individual enjoyment.

Production factors

For Simonian, the control of ingredients to sustain the hop crop is a major challenge. One of the most critical is irrigation water. Since hops plants have traditionally shown a sensitivity to hot weather, the regulation of irrigation inputs has been carefully measured, and will be open to adjustment in subsequent years.   

The carefully measured growth of the hop plant with its flowers is another essential production factor. It is believed that the rate of growth along the trellis wires has a direct effect on hop flavor. Fertilizer inputs can have a direct influence on how fast the hop vine pushes upward in the growing season.

Like raisin-producing grape vines, the major cane of the hop plant is severed and discarded during or after harvest. Each basic hop plant (vine) begins to push a new master cane upward along the towering trellis wire as the growing season begins. A critical year-long growing season begins.

One of the major challenges for each hop plant during the growing season is frost. December and January are critical months with occasional spillover into November and February. Frost protection measures have not been established yet, but they will be carefully evaluated this winter. The Central Valley’s dreaded fog actually provides some frost protection.

Enthusiasm builds

Simonian is enthusiastic about the new hop-growing enterprise, as are several local craft beer producers. Major national beer companies could be next. 

The rest of us might do well to learn to identify a hop yard when we see one, just so we can point it out to visiting relatives and friends, especially those from Milwaukee, St. Louis or Golden, Col.  It might make them thirsty.

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