Distilled: Idaho Microbrew Industry Spurs Fruitful Relationship With Local Agriculture

Jan 24, 2018

Take a drive west on Highway 19 towards Wilder and you’ll start to see rows of poles more than a dozen feet tall, piercing the southwest Idaho sky.

It’s here that farmers grow one of the most critical components of beer: hops.

“They’ll grow all the way up to 18 feet tall and they will arm out and, basically, you can think of it, it looks kind of like a brussel sprout,” says Michelle Gooding, whose family has been growing the aromatic green cones for nearly 125 years.

Gooding Farms now oversees about 850 acres of farmland in southwest Idaho, which has become a hotspot for the crop.

For brewers, hops can add bitterness, subtle flavors and acts as a natural preservative.

Just last year, Idaho overtook Oregon as the second largest hop-producing state in the country – something Gooding’s family couldn’t have imagined decades ago. She says it’s all thanks to craft brewing.

“For a long time hops weren’t really a viable option in terms of a career path because the market was so poor,” she says.

In winter, hops vines go dormant and retreat into the ground. Once they reach peak maturity in the summer, they can grow more than 18 feet high.
Credit James Dawson

“I can say without a doubt our farm, as well as other small family farms, [craft brewing] saved the farms.”

Growth in craft beer has leveled off recently. Production inched up by five percent in the first half of 2017, according to Fortune Magazine – far lower than the 16 percent reported in 2015.

With a record number of planted acres of hops in the U.S., that’s led to a glut of the crop sitting in storage.

But Gooding isn’t worried. Prices for hops are strong and her family has contracts with regional brewers and suppliers to sidestep any market shrinkage.

In south central and eastern Idaho, malt barley, one of the other basic ingredients of beer, is king.

Even though prices are low compared to five years ago, Kelly Olson, head of the Idaho Barley Commission, says the industry is on an upswing.

“We’re going to see some stabilization in acres and we’re going to see a little higher prices this year, so I think growers are optimistic,” Olson says.

South central and eastern Idaho boast huge barley fields like this one. The state has become the crop's number one grower in recent years.
Credit Oleksii Leonov via Flickr Creative Commons

The Gem State is the leading producer of the grain in the country, buoyed by processing plants run by brewing behemoths AB InBev – which owns Budweiser – and MillerCoors.

Great Western Malting also buys millions of bushels from Idaho farmers.

“They just recently expanded their Pocatello malt processing plant by 130 percent and driving that was the demand from craft brewing so they can supply any and all craft brewers in the western U.S.,” Olson says.

But craft brewing has also opened palettes up to other forms of alcohol.

William LeFave and his wife, Shauna Scheets opened Idaho’s first commercial meadery a few years ago in Garden City. Mead is made from fermented honey and some think it’s the oldest man-made alcoholic drink.

Mythic Mead buys its honey from an apiary in Melba, which LeFave says gives it a distinct flavor.

“You can taste some of the alfalfa and some of the sagebrush and different things,” he says.

LeFave also sources berries and other ingredients from local suppliers as a way to give back to the community.

He’s not the only one.

Molly Leadbetter co-owns Meriwether Cider just down the street in Garden City.

"The local agriculture here is so incredible and all the farmers and gardeners all deserve so many props and they deserve us to support them as much as possible." -Molly Leadbetter, co-owner of Meriwether Cider

She and her family have used sage and thyme from a farm in Middleton in one of their ciders.

“The local agriculture here is so incredible and all the farmers and gardeners all deserve so many props and they deserve us to support them as much as possible,” Leadbetter says.

The apple juice they ferment comes from orchards across the northwest, but Leadbetter notes growers in Idaho are starting to plant more cider-specific apple varieties.

However, every fall Meriwether puts out a call to people to bring in their own apples for what they call a “community crush” which they juice and turn into a communal cider.

Leadbetter says this year’s hyper local drink included pears, crabapples and who knows how many kinds of apples.

“It got a little away from us and we got a little funky flavors and it was very earthy. It was kind of fun because it was this cider that no one had ever seen.”

That community connection to agriculture hasn’t seemed to slow down across the industry. Idaho farmers and producers alike hope to maintain the fruitful relationship well into the future.

This story is part of the KBSX news series, "Distilled."

For more local news, follow James Dawson on Twitter @RadioDawson

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