Growing beer

Alpha Beta Hops on Butler Creek Road is getting ready to harvest its first crop of hops and send them off to area breweries.

The modest, 1.5-acre hops yard is one of the few organic hops operations in Oregon and owners say it's the only commercial hops field south of the Willamette Valley.

Hops are a vigorous vine that grows on a network of wires and twine, producing small cones with lupulin resin, a bitter, aromatic substance that's mixed with barley malt, water and yeast to make beer, says Alpha Beta owner Steve Pierce.

“I got interested in beer when I lived in Munich for four years while in the Navy, then became a home brewer,” says Pierce.

“I wanted to raise something besides hay — and last year hops prices went up high.”

Pierce and his wife, Rebecca, and son Spencer, partners in the operation, hope to have 3,000 pounds of dried hops to sell next year, but, with plants just starting to get established in the new yard, this year's crop will be smaller.

They built their hops yard by hand (except for hiring a post hole digger), installing big juniper poles from Klamath Falls, running wire to hold them in place and stringing the wires with coconut fiber from Sri Lanka for the vines to climb on. They found irrigation lines in a hops yard in Grants Pass that quit producing 20 years ago.

The family has a “hopper” tractor to harvest the vines, but will pick the hop cones by hand, a prickly job since they're covered with tiny thorns.

Farming comes naturally to the family, Pierce says, but marketing of the new product to breweries and home brewers poses a challenge — as does going organic.

“It can be scary if a disease whips through there,” he says. “You can't spray. But we're small enough, we can be organic and not get overwhelmed. Pierce says he introduced several colonies of lady bugs to help control pests.

“It's the ideal climate, wet spring, hot, dry summer,” says Pierce. “Oregon is so progressive and was a pioneer in making laws for home and craft brewing. It's that Oregon spirit of independence and self-sustainability and good food, wine and beer.”

Beer, he says, is one of the earliest inventions of civilization, and its drinking bowls have been found in Mesopotamia and Egypt, the first urban sites.

Hops, he adds, were not used until Medieval times as a “bittering agent” that provides stability and that edgy beer taste and aroma.

Hops are part of the family — Cannabaceae — that also includes marijuana.

Making hops for craft beer is a good bet in recession times, he notes, because more and more people are acquiring a taste for it and “like to sit down and enjoy a beer.”

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at

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