Elk Mountain Farms: A Lesson in Hops, a Lesson in Beer

Elk Mountain Farms: A Lesson in Hops, a Lesson in Beer
Photo Credit: Mathew Powers

In the shadows of the Idaho mountains, amidst its gorgeous flowing streams, is the largest contiguous hop farm in the world – Elk Mountain Farms.  I am fortunate enough to have been there.

If you don't mind, let’s put the business-side of beer on the back burner for a moment and just stick to beer. Is that okay? Just beer and the glorious hops that make beer delectable.

Elk Mountain Farms

Photo Credit: Mathew Powers

Recently, Goose Island Beer Co. invited me, along with a host of other beer writers and professionals, to the northern reaches of Idaho to visit the world’s largest continuous hop farm, Elk Mountain Farms. The sea of hops is something to behold. Due to its rather remote location, we flew to Spokane and then took a helicopter ride through the gorgeous countryside into this farm north of Bonners Ferry, Idaho. Even from a few thousand feet in the air, one could surmise that this was no ordinary hop farm – it’s massive. But, it wasn’t always that way. Elk Mountain’s hop production once fell to a point where only 15% of its fields were used for growing hops – a sad day for these hard workers. However, the resurgence of beer, largely due to Goose Island, has resulted in 1700 acres of hop production each year.

An opportunity to visit a place Elk Mountain is not something any writer should shun. It’s a little bit “learning experience,” and it’s a little bit “beer-fantasy camp.” To sit next to brilliant – and I mean brilliant – hop farmers and learn about the immense process of deciding what to plant, how much to plant, when to plant, how to harvest it, how to dry it …well, I could go on, is something that made my beer knowledge skyrocket.

I used to think it was about ingredients. I was wrong. It’s about the process of developing those ingredients that truly matter.

Listening to top-notch brewers converse with hop farmers, and then among each other, and then to us proved to be immeasurably enlightening. If one took the art of listening seriously while at this event, it would be impossible not to realize that much of one’s beer knowledge is lacking, incorrect, and in need of repair. If that’s not enough, we got to not only eat the wondrous dishes provided to us by a world class chef, we got to watch him butcher a complete elk. Watching him break down that beast with deft precision and skill, while also teaching us all about every inch of every portion of meat exuded from that animal only enhanced our overall learning experience.

Elk Mountain Farms

Photo Credit: Mathew Powers

In addition to all that, it was an absolute blast to hang with writers, bloggers, photographers, editors, beer professionals, and of course brewers – I’m talking real people here who love their jobs so much they bleed beer. For us writers, we are often so busy talking to brewers and breweries that it’s hard to just enjoy beer. It also helped us writers feed off each others' brain a bit, vent about “trolls,” and discover better ways to improve upon our own craft -- to talk about beer, educate people about beer, report about beer, and otherwise be the conduit between brewer and drinker.

And, I will admit, in between the learning and interviewing, we had a lot of fun – and drank plenty of beer. I mean, do you think we wouldn’t sit around and indulge? We did. No regrets. I had plenty of Sophie, Matilda, Halia, BCS, and delicious 4-star Pils (you know, to cleanse my palate, right?). While we learned, we played a bit, too.

This, my friends, was a lesson in why things taste good. It doesn’t start in the kitchen or the taproom. It starts on the farm, on an animal’s habitat, and in the minds of brewers, chefs, and farmers prior to ever creating a menu or brewing recipe.

Here’s a movie about the event – Thank you to Goose Island for being such gracious hosts. For a few days, I didn’t care who owned whom, what owned what. I only cared about the process of hops traversing the country from Idaho soil to my snifter in Chicago. Oh, hops also make the base for a great sauce …and as part of a dessert!

Simply put: Hops rule!

(I have a much more formal piece that I’m composing for Chilled Magazine soon, but for now I wanted to write a small, personal essay, and make the movie, about this experience.)

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