Pouring a pint of Rogue’s Seven Hop IPA, it’s easy to forget this simple fact: Beer begins in the dirt.
Getting the beer into the glass involves boiling grains, pitching yeast and fermenting the brew, but the raw ingredients—barley and hops—have to be grown too. And while a large, mainstream beer maker might purchase all its ingredients from far-flung growers, a growing number of smaller breweries are turning to local farms for barley and hops.
The Oregon-based craft brewery Rogue takes things a step further, doing the farming themselves. The beer maker grows seven varieties of hops on its 42-acre farm on the Willamette River, south of Independence, OR—hops that appear in more than nine of Rogue’s brews. Additionally, the farm produces different grains and flavoring ingredients, like pumpkins, honey and chiles, which are used in Rogue beers.
Beer expert Lucy Saunders, whose upcoming cookbook Dinner in the Beer Garden will feature plant-based recipes paired with craft beer, says Rogue is leading a national trend toward beer that isn’t just brewed locally, but is made from local ingredients too.
“Increasingly, many breweries grow their own hops for dry hopping, and some brewpubs, such as Schlafly in St. Louis, MO, grow their own produce for their pub kitchens,” she says.
Besides Rogue, Saunders lauds Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. for its estate ales, and Bell’s Brewery, which brews with barley from its own Michigan farm. Mystic Brewery in Chelsea, MA, has its Vinland One, a beer brewed with an indigenous strain of yeast from a Massachusetts-grown plum. Locavores love all this for its sustainability implications, of course, but Saunders says the backyard approach to brewing also has economic benefits too.
“Any brewing ingredient that travels to the brewery on the back of a truck or in a shipping container incurs variable costs—but typically higher costs—according to energy prices,” she says. “So, the closer your sources for brewery ingredients, the better your chances of getting them on time and without high shipping fees.”
For the last month or so, workers at Rogue’s hop farm have been hard at work harvesting different varieties of the cone-shaped flowers that will lend their generally bitter, tart flavor to the brewery’s ales, lagers, stouts and porters. Once removed from the bines, the towering vine-like stems the hops grow on, Rogue’s harvest travels just a few feet from the hopyard to the company’s own processing facility.
Pacific Northwest soil is particularly fertile for growing brewing ingredients, especially hops, Saunders says. Elsewhere, though, conditions vary, complicating efforts by some small breweries to use local ingredients.
“Traditional varieties grown in Europe or the USA may have varying quality despite the best efforts of the growers,” she says. “There’s no guarantee regarding crop yields, either, so even if a crop is grown locally, the yield could be short one year, driving up prices.”