When winemakers, critics, and vineyard workers talk about wine, they’ll often talk about terroir — the way the climate, soil, and environmental conditions of a place impact the flavor of wine grapes. Driving through the Willamette Valley, visitors will often see rows of pinot noir grapes prized for their terroir, a product of cold evenings and volcanic soil, high elevation vineyards and rainy springs. Those winding grapevines lining the country roads of Pacific Northwestern agricultural regions draw visitors to local wineries, where tasting room servers accentuate the impact of the setting on the flavor in the glass.
But wine grapes aren’t the only plants growing in the Pacific Northwest: Hop bines, the building blocks of the region’s craft beer, have a similarly crucial role in the area’s beverage industry, and the beer world is trying to find new ways to illustrate that concept to drinkers. Hop growers, who tend to the towering veil of plants near countless high-profile vineyards, have opened their own tasting rooms. Breweries have begun highlighting specific hop growers on their cans and bottles.
A recent study may give hop growers and brewers a new argument for the prestige of the local craft beer industry: Oregon State University researchers confirmed that hop aroma and chemicals vary based on geography. In other words, hops have terroir.
Humulus lupulus is a member of the Cannabaceae family of flowering plants. The bright green flowers or cones from humulus lupulus, also known as hops, add bitterness and aroma to beer. Craft brewers use a cocktail of various hops at the end of the brewing process to create a broader flavor profile — juicy and tropical, bright and citrusy, pine-y and herbaceous.
“Every brewer seems to want something different out of a hop variety,” says professor Tom Shellhammer of the College of Agricultural Studies at Oregon State University. “It isn’t like every brewer wants Mosaic to be dank.”
Shellhammer recently published his third hop study examining how these fragrant flowers take on a variety of traits based on where they’re grown. He first led a private study comparing different sites on a single farm, followed by an Oregon State University study on farms within the Willamette Valley. This most recent research built on his other work by comparing the largest hop growing areas in this county — the Willamette Valley in Oregon, which produces about 14 percent of the nation’s hop crop, and the Yakima Valley in Washington, which produces about 75 percent.
For this latest multi-state study, Cascade and Mosaic hops were grown in fields in these two areas. Hops grown for the study were dried and brewed in beer, then tested using scientific equipment as well as a panel of employees and students of Oregon State University.
The twelve testers — chosen based on their ability to differentiate various aromas — sniffed lidded cups that contained hop grinds, and then checked all the boxes on a list of 20 aromatic descriptions that applied to the sample. They also sniffed beer samples made from the hops grown for the study and filled out an aroma checklist.
The scientific equipment and human testing found that the same variety of hop will have different traits based on where it’s grown. The wine industry calls this geographic flavor designation terroir.
Shellhammer says researchers have a long way to go, research-wise, in terms of understanding how hop terroir works; however, its potential for brewers is significant. There are dozens of varieties of hops, grown everywhere from Australia to Germany to the Pacific Northwest. Brewers order those hops based on flavor profiles provided by hop brokers, via a certificate of analysis — a document that includes information like the percentage of alpha acids and beta acids, and percentage of the various aroma producing oils in the flower. By understanding the way the environment impacts hops, farmers can better understand what their hops can offer a brewer on a tasting note level, and brewers can better understand what different regions can offer their beer. In other words, they can understand the “where,” not just the “what.”
A better understanding of hops is also important to the growers who supply these hops — even just from a marketing or perception standpoint. John Coleman, the sixth-generation hop grower behind Westwood Farms in the Willamette Valley, sees these studies as a way to keep new generations on these farms, illustrating the intricacy of hops and the merit of thoughtful hop farming. “Hops are the centerpiece of the beer world,” Coleman says. “Hopefully, recognizing terroir helps expand the value of the product. The idea is to keep us all relevant.”
Historically, hops were grown for large-scale breweries as a flat bittering agent; the nuances of hop flavors weren’t a huge part of the conversation. The Cascade hop, developed by OSU hop geneticist Alfred Haunold in the ’60s and ’70s, accelerated the craft beer movement in the Pacific Northwest, and illustrated the value of a wider spectrum of hop varieties. The discovery of hop terroir could give the industry another boost, and make way for an even broader spectrum of hop growing. “Growing hops is expensive,” Coleman says. “You need to have a big enough operation to meet expenses. Niche crops can be part of the business for hops growers.”
Taking a cue from the wine industry, some growers have opened onsite tasting rooms drawing customers to their farms to sip beer made with their specialty products. Topwire Hop Project at Crosby Hop Farm in the Willamette Valley and Bale Breaker in Yakima, Washington provide a farm-to-pint experience, where customers sip brews that showcase their products surrounded by a canopy of hops — reminiscent of the winding vineyards at wineries. Maybe in the future, beer drinkers will tour hop farms the way wine aficionados tour vineyards – with a glass in hand.