What the Grape Vine Can Teach Us About Beer

January 29, 2017

By Will Thompson, January 29, 2017

At this moment, at least one Seattleite is escaping the winter chill with a freshly poured pint of craft beer produced by a local Seattle brewery. At the same time, just over the Cascade Mountains, a mere 150 interstate miles away, a Yakima Valley hop farmer is making early preparations for the impending hop vine growth that will explode across his acreage.

The Yakima Valley represents roughly 75% of planted hop acreage in the United States. For the Pacific Northwest craft brew enthusiast, this proximity between hop producer and brewer can produce a unique, “locally sourced farm-to-glass” experience – akin to the regionally unique tasting experience one finds in wine. Much like a Yakima Valley Riesling, a Washington IPA is decidedly Washington, reflecting the flavors of Eastern Washington hops, just as the Riesling grapes drawn from the local land.

Michael Kiser / Good Beer HuntingThe grapes that make the wine.

Like grapes to the winemaker, how might locally sourced hops help craft brewers nationwide begin creating more regionally unique beer?  What can the hops plant itself tell us about this future?

The wine industry far outpaces beer in terms of how individual regions and “microclimates” are leveraged to impart great diversification of the product from one area to the next. Modern vineyard management practices allow winemakers to utilize local grapes, often grown on the same property as the production facility itself, to produce high quality, regionally specific wines.

Let the hop seek new, greener pasture!”

The hop vine, like the grape vine, is a vigorous plant. So why does the craft beer industry, which relies so heavily on obtaining this one crucial flavoring ingredient, have to source that ingredient largely from one or two fairly remote areas? Even with some growth in production in new regions, the Pacific Northwest produced 98% of American-grown hops in the latest report by the Hops Growers of America. 

Why are we, the craft beer loving public, deprived of say, a unique and decidedly Southeastern Colorado-style IPA? Let the hop seek new, greener pasture!

Before daydreaming about a hop farm in every village, it’s helpful to examine the hop vine’s ability to survive winter. The perennial hop vine is recommended for winter hardiness in U.S. Department of Agriculture zones three through eight – light yellow to light purple on the USDA map below, which shows the growing zones of the United States based upon average annual minimum temperature extremes. 

United States Department of AgricultureThis Hardiness Zone Map shows off the different agricultural zones of America.

A huge portion of the contiguous 48 is within zones three through eight. According to Washington State University, the hardiest of wine grapes will see 90% bud loss, otherwise known as “there goes the farm”, anywhere from -10 through -15 degrees Fahrenheit. Zone three is rated as low as -40 degrees Fahrenheit, so already we know that hop vines are far more frost tolerant than grape vines.

Hop vines, like most hardy perennials, die back nearly to the soil surface following each growing season, completely re-growing each year, thus leaving no sensitive tissues exposed to the elements. Grape vines shed their fruit and leaves, but produce sensitive bud nodes that will generate next year’s growth along the more exposed wooded vine.

Michael Kiser / Good Beer HuntingWorking a vineyard in the winter means careful pruning.

In addition to the ability to endure extremely low temperatures, hops, much like apples, also require extended seasonal chilling for optimal growth. Michigan State University Extension suggests one to two months of sustained chilling at or below 40 degrees Fahrenheit.

Michael Kiser / Good Beer HuntingWorking hops in the winter, on the other hand, doesn't take much pruning.

During the growing season, warmth and longer periods of sunlight combine to initiate flowering, but the key to commercial hop production are summer’s very long days, which promote higher hop cone yields. This dependence upon phototropism partly explains why U.S. hop production is concentrated in the interior Pacific Northwest where, due to its northerly latitude, peak growing season daylight ranges from 14 to 16 hours per day. Higher yields per acre lead to a lower price point.

Today’s brewing market is more cramped and competitive than ever, so the margins of every production cost are amplified. But therein exists a false ceiling that is potentially capping creativity in the craft beer scene. We don’t know how varied the hop can be, even within specific species.

We don’t know how varied the hop can be, even within specific species.”

Grape growers and wine makers alike closely track Growing Degree Days in order to make predictions for the coming crops. Growing Degree Days (GDD) are a measurement of heat accumulation per day, which are then added as a running total throughout the growing season. In general, more GDD means more crops, but it’s a little more complicated than that, since more does not always mean more high quality yield.

A wine grape grower uses real time and historical data to plan harvesting times, fertilizer application, or other vineyard maintenance. That data is their baseline for making informed decisions about a particular growing season’s trajectory.

For the wine maker, GDD is the first data point in understanding the chemistry of grapes for a particular vintage. If winemakers know how the current season is tracking, they can make informed decisions about fermentation strategy and style before the grapes hit a laboratory or their building.

Below is a graph showing the variability of GDD based upon National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration U.S. Climate Normals from 1981-2010. I have selected a few notable wine regions as well as regions that pose potential for seasonal extremes for hop vine growth.

Mike Duesenberg / Good Beer Hunting / Data: National Oceanic Atmospheric AdministrationGrowing Degree Days (GDD) according to NOAA's U.S. Climate Normal Reports from 1981-2010

There is a reason why Pinot Noir from Paso Robles is a fruit bomb when compared to Pinot Noir from the Willamette Valley, and this difference cannot simply be attributed to the soil, which is often sold to the consumer as terroir. Heat accumulation during the growing season influences the development of sugars, acids, and phenolic compounds such as color and tannin in the grape that are carried through into the wine. The higher the GDD, the more sugar is produced and when yeast ferment a sugar they produce the esters that contribute aroma and flavor to a wine.

That barely scratches the surface of the relationship between wine and GDD, but the conclusion is that climatic differences between regions play a massive role in diversifying wine, and this scale can be zoomed in all the way to one vineyard site and the year-to-year changes in heat accumulation and the wine produced from its grapes.

Pinot Noir from Paso Robles is not Pinot Noir from Willamette Valley because their climates are radically different. So can we really expect Chinook hop from Yakima Valley to be identical to Chinook hop from Michigan?

Michael Kiser / Good Beer HuntingGrapes in the offseason, resting up before showing off their signature style.

The interior Northwest, specifically Yakima Valley, has dominated hop farming because the climate is so ideal for producing the super-charged hops that brewers are clamoring for. We know brewers all over the nation can offer us fresh beer in countless styles and iterations despite largely sourcing one of their four mandatory ingredients from one small valley in Washington.

Thus far our palates have responded well enough that hundreds of new breweries are opening each year and the hop-dominated IPA is the darling of the craft beer market. So far it has worked, but when does the demand for craft beer outpace hop farming and production capacity as currently located?

Way back when, a winery in Washington did not source grapes from Bordeaux, they planted a vineyard and learned to manage it according to the regional characteristics, thus resulting in pure Washington wine. When will the same thing happen in a new region in America?

Imagine a brewer in Yakima Valley and a brewer in Austin each brew a beer with identical specifications throughout the brewing process except for one key variable, the hop.”

Producing a more regionally specific beer is a greater challenge for a brewery simply because a beer requires four basic ingredients while a wine needs just two. The hop is an interesting candidate to approach this idea because it is so crucial in determining a beer’s flavor and character.  

Imagine a brewer in Yakima Valley and a brewer in Austin each brew a beer with identical specifications throughout the brewing process except for one key variable, the hop. The brewer from Austin uses Simcoe hop grown on a local hop farm while the Washington brewer uses Simcoe hop from the Yakima Valley.

Due to differences in everything about Austin’s climate and soil compared to the Yakima Valley, a different Simcoe hop and therefore Simcoe-hopped beer may very likely result. It may not be the traditional Simcoe taste, but that is what is exciting. There would be nuance and unique characteristics infusing a regional identity to the beer.

Why wouldn’t the development of alpha and beta acids or oils in a hop be vastly influenced by individual growing regions, such as is the case with the grape? The scale would start small, but there is opportunity for pivotal growth in the beer industry that is potentially far more interesting and profitable than minute recipe changes or label art.

We want fresh hops.”

We want fresh hops. Most places in the United States will not be able to match the specs of a Yakima Valley hop, but that is not the idea. Across the nation there are possibilities for all scales of regionally unique hop production imparting flavor profiles beyond recipe tweaks and adjustments.

The wine industry has thrived on delivering a product that is accompanied by a story romanticizing the location of its production. Beer will always have a more casual feeling when compared to wine because that has been and will be its nature, but that doesn't mean the beer-loving world can’t understand the nuances of the small chemistry project in their glass. The craft beer market is expanding as it gains increased market share each year, but there exists an avenue for a shift in the way we can think about our beer.

Wine is thought of as mystical and veiled to the point of perceived snobbery, but in reality this reverence is born from a deeper understanding of the grape, and its dependency on unique regional environments. Regionally unique hops could be the genesis for creating a similar effect upon beer appreciation. It would require the establishment of locally focused hop farm management, and brewers embracing this new product and using it in a way that showcases its characteristics.

One day I hope to make a weekend trip to (insert righteous beer location here) with friends and listen to brewers tell me exactly why their Cascade-hopped Pale Ale is different from every other Cascade-hopped Pale Ale. Not because they used a new type of hop infuser or experimented with 120 minute boils, but because the hops were grown right down the road and these exact hops will never be replicated anywhere else.

I want beer from right here.

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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