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Issue 51: How the hops in Bud and Bud Light get from North Idaho to your drink.
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Tucked in a valley among the Selkirk Mountains of North Idaho, about thirty minutes from the Canadian border, is a surprising site: Elk Mountain Farm, one of the world’s largest hop farms. The drive in from the main road is desolate, save for a few cattle, but when you finally arrive, hop bines stretch up toward the sky across 1700 acres.
Founded in 1987 by the the Anheuser-Busch company, the area north of Bonners Ferry, Idaho was chosen because it’s on the same parallel as Munich, Germany and the company wanted to mimic European growing conditions. The area shares a similar climate and terroir and the hops took well to the rich and fertile valley soil. Today, the farm produces about a quarter of the hops that Anheuser-Busch uses worldwide.
My dad and I visited in late August and met with General Manager Ed Atkins to learn how the hops grown on the farm make it into Bud and Bud Light all over the world.
We arrived at the start of harvest season, so most of the hops were still growing — field after field of viney plants as tall as the surrounding evergreen trees. Hops are perennial plants that have bines and wrap their stems around a supporting structure, so the plants are hand-tied to a trellis with coconut husk fibers imported from Sri Lanka.
Hops can produce indefinitely, but at Elk Mountain, they harvest from each plant for about 15 years and then they replant. At certain points, the farm focused on more heirloom/craft varieties, but there’s a lot of instability in consumer tastes, so the farm has shifted back to just growing hops for Bud and Bud light. Did you know there are 8 hop varieties in Bud Light? Not me!
The farm uses custom-made machines to harvest all of their hops. These combines only run about 20 days a year, cost nearly $1m to make, and are a few of only 30 that exist worldwide. “If you want one, you build it. You don’t buy them,” Ed said. Many hop farms hand-harvest, but on such a large facility with a short harvest window, these combines help make the process more effective.
The machine drags the hop bines through a cutter along the bottom. The cutter goes up and down, in and out, and swings around the hop pole. The bines are pulled through chains and fed through another cutter along the top. Finally, the hops are passed through the fingers (red, below) and the hop cones are plucked off and dropped to a conveyor below.
The conveyor brings the hops to a truck that trails behind the combine to collect the semi-cleaned hops. They’re loaded into a box with a wire mesh, the hops sift down to a conveyor and all the leafy, viney material stays on top of the mesh.
After the hops are collected on the field, they’re dumped into a giant bin where they’re prepared for a secondary cleaning. Here, the hops are further separated from any leftover bines and leaves.
We walked into a giant room and the hops were shaking through sifters, being pulled up stairs, and tumbling down chutes on a machine that is best described as a cross between a conveyor belt and a Rube Goldberg machine.
After this final cleaning, the hops are brought to a warehouse where they’re dried. The ground floor has a number of huge fires that dry the hops on the floor above, acting like a giant kiln.
Upstairs, the hops are spread out to dry in the kiln and it felt like a hoppy steam room - it was nearly 150 degrees, wet, and the air was heavy with the smell of toasted hops.
After time in the hop kiln, the dried hops are brought to a final warehouse to rehydrate. The center of the hop cone dries at a different rate than the petal, so in the warehouse, hops are placed into very large piles to give the hop time to pull moisture back out of that core into the petals.
There’s also some variability between different parts of the block, so from a chemistry perspective, this stage also acts as a place to mix all of the hops to make a homogenous blend.
The final stage involves compressing hops into a 200-ish pound block and sewing it into a package. These giant cubes are then shipped off to Yakima, Washington where they await distribution around the world.
So next time you grab a Bud, you can toast to the mighty but small team in North Idaho that made it happen.
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