Terrie Martin, left, interim director of the Southern Oregon Historical Society, and Standing Stone Brewing Co. owner Alex Amarotico walk across the field where hops will be grown at the historic Hanley Farm. - Jim Craven

Hop prices come home

CENTRAL POINT — The cost of hops is about to drive Alex Amarotico to drink.

"The price has tripled in the last year and a half," lamented the owner of Standing Stone Brewing Co. in Ashland. "When I started brewing in '97, we were paying $4 a pound. We're paying about $25 a pound now."

But a joint venture between Standing Stone and historic Hanley Farm owned by the Southern Oregon Historical Society may offer a thirst-quenching solution.

The staff at the 36-acre farm will be planting 100 hop plants this spring as part of an experiment bringing a resurgence of the crop back to the region.

"This is also part of an effort by SOHS to create more partnerships with the community," explained Terrie Martin, the interim director of the cash-strapped society.

"We are trying to utilize the land as much as possible," she added of the farm noted for its rich soil. "Everything from the vegetable garden (about five acres) goes to the farmer's markets in Ashland and Medford. This will help with that effort."

Moreover, the hops will serve as an educational exhibit for what was an important industry in the region, she said. The farm is charged with preserving the agricultural history of Southern Oregon, a region where hops were once a major cash crop.

"We want to buy as much locally as we can," Amarotico said. "Right now, we mostly buy our hops from Yakima (Wash.), but some come from New Zealand and others from Germany."

The hops they currently buy are dried. Adam Benson, the brewer at Standing Stone, wants to make a fresh-hop beer, a brew which offers a different character than that from dried hops.

However, to accomplish that, the hops must be delivered shortly after being harvested. Up until about 20 years ago, Benson could have purchased plenty of hops locally.

In fact, as early as 1888, Josephine County farms produced 70,000 pounds of hops, according to the book "History of Josephine County" by Jack Sutton.

By 1893, there were 13 hop growers in Josephine and Jackson counties. That number climbed to 50 by 1945.

Out in the Applegate Valley, hop farmer Bert Clute kept his hops alive throughout Prohibition from 1920 through 1930, reported a Sept. 21, 1934, article in the Mail Tribune. He produced a boomer crop of hops that year on 90 acres, making him one of the largest hop growers in the region.

"I had an idea that if you stay with anything long enough, sooner or later you will get a break," Clute told the paper. He had started growing hops in 1910.

But hops went out of favor by the late 1980s, thanks to growth and disease, principally powdery mildew. The commercial hops industry largely died out locally, although some folks grow their own hops for making their own beer.

Yet Oregon is still the second highest producer of commercial hops in the nation behind Washington state, according to Bruce Pokarney, spokesman for the Oregon Department of Agriculture.

The $23 million industry in Oregon that produced 8.8 million pounds of hops in 2006 is confined to the northern Willamette Valley, largely to two dozen growers in Marion County, he said.

The plants to be grown at Hanley Farm represent about 10 to 15 percent of the amount of hops Standing Stone would use in a year, Amarotico said. The average harvest is about six pounds per plant.

"This is a pilot program to see if we can process them in a way that preserves the integrity," he said of fresh hops that are also known as wet hops.

"Ideally, we will be able to use them in all our beers if we can figure out how to keep the shelf life," he added.

The hop idea began fermenting during a benefit for SOHS at Hanley Farm last year. Standing Stone provided food and drink for the occasion.

During his visit to the farm, Amarotico was impressed by the soil and staff. He began buying tomatoes from the farm.

Amarotico began talking to SOHS about growing hops before the price for hops went through the brewery roof.

"There are half as many hops being grown today as 1987," he said of the crop nationally. "But the whole microbrewery thing is increasing the demand, especially for local hops."

As a result, several other local folks are planning to grow hops in the area, he noted.

"We've got 36 acres to play with," Martin said. "We want to use it in a way that serves the community. When you find a need, you try to serve it."

The Centennial variety hop plants, starting from rhizomes, will eventually climb up on tall trellises. They would be harvested in late summer or early fall.

It will take at least two years for the plants to mature, and a bit longer for the fermentation process before the brewery and SOHS are able to toast each other with the new local brew.

If it works out, the program will be good for both the local community and the economy, Amarotico observed.

"I've always had a goal of being as local and self-sufficient as possible," he said. "Giving local farmers money in exchange for this keeps that money closer to our doors."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at

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