I simply wasn't prepared for what I saw when Fred Colby, co-owner of Laughing Dog Brewery in Ponderay, pulled opened the heavy door to his walk-in cooler. Instead of setting eyes on cases of craft beer, I caught the cold gaze of six very pink pig carcasses.
"Pig beer!" I blurted out reflexively, in order to suppress what would have been a high-pitched, porcine-like squeal.
"No," Colby said, drawing out the word in a calming, cooing way. "At our annual anniversary party, we barbecue six whole pigs."
Laughing Dog, it turned out, was on the eve of its sixth anniversary barbecue, and the next day, this large brewery would be filled with friends, fresh beer and the scent of spit-roasted pork. But this day, Colby was more interested in showing me why he believed his North Idaho brewery had become so popular.
To the right of the pork six-pack, he grabbed a bag and opened it under my nose.
"The best thing is really stick your nose in there and smell," Colby suggested.
Suddenly I was flung into a forest after a warm rain. I breathed in deep, earthy aromas, a hint of wildflowers and the slightly bracing bite of pine.
"They can impart that same flavor into the beer," Colby explained.
Like so many craft brewmasters, Colby is a self-confessed hop head.
"Hops can be very complicated," he said as we sniffed another, very different, very citrusy variety. "And one of the things that you see in craft brewers today in hops is they're adding layers of complexity into the beer. So rather than one-dimensional beers, we can build really complex, artful-tasting beers. I think that's why it's called craft beer. It really is a craft."
The cone-shaped female flower of the hop plant, Humulus lupulus, a perennial related to nettles and marijuana, contains resins and oils that give beer its characteristically piney bitterness and layers of complexity. That aromatic complexity, Colby explained, is a fundamental reason his once-small North Idaho brewery has flourished for the last six years and now ships beer to 30 states and Canada.
Yet despite the pivotal role hops play in America's burgeoning craft-beer movement, hops are often hard to come by for artisan beer makers--even in the nation's hop-growing epicenter of Washington, Oregon and Idaho.
"Here in northern Idaho," Colby told me after closing the cooler door and leading me around stainless steel brewing tanks, "just north of us, we have probably one of the largest contiguous hop farms in the world--Elk Mountain Farms. They have the potential to grow 1,700 acres of hops on one farm, and for us, it's important that they're there because they do grow some hops for us."
The key word in that last sentence is "some." The fact that Colby can get any hops from local sources is unusual. Unlike the close connection winemakers have to grape growers--they are, after all, often one and the same--craft beer makers and hop growers seldom have anything resembling a face-to-face connection.
America's industrial beer brewers--what Colby diplomatically calls "domestic lager" makers--and international hop brokers dominate the hop and barley markets, reserving large quantities of ingredients before the harvest through long-standing contracts with growers. Elk Mountain Farms in Bonner's Ferry, for instance, contracts nearly all of its hop harvest to the Budweiser-Michelob-and-Natural-Light behemoth Anheuser-Busch. southern Idaho hop farmers sell most of their crop to hop broker S.S. Steiner.
These arrangements are understandable once you realize that craft beer totals a tasty, but tiny, drop in America's vast beer bucket--a piddling 4 percent of U.S. beer sales in 2008, according to the Brewers Association. Therefore small breweries are often left scrambling after hop-scented crumbs the giant lager boys leave behind. When a hop shortage hits, like the one in 2007, they're the first left holding an empty hop bag.
Colby buys in just-large-enough quantities to make it worth Elk Mountain's time to plant the kinds of hops he's interested in.
"In the next couple of years we expect our Cascade [hop] usage to go up to around 3,000 to 4,000 pounds a year," or the equivalent of about two acres of hops, Colby said.
"Those are the types of usages that you have to see in order to get somebody to change their mind-set about how they're going to plant their fields," he said. "It's not worthwhile to them to plant a half an acre for a small brewery because it's so hard to harvest just a half an acre of hops."
Bart Rayne, an organic farmer in Homedale, still thought it odd that the third-largest hop-growing state in the country couldn't supply locally grown hops to small brewers. A while ago, he teamed up with Lance Chavez, an apprentice brewer at Sockeye Brewery in Boise, to plant and harvest a hop crop and brew beer. But they found out rather quickly how difficult it is to match farmer to brewer on a scale that works for both.
"The quantities they need to even just do small batches at the brewer level, it's almost beyond me," Rayne said. "To harvest on a small scale when you're not automated, you're basically hand harvesting each individual cone, so it wasn't that economical for me."
But why even bother with local hops when they're dried, pelletized and packaged for shipping anyway?
Matt Gelsthorpe, the Boise Co-op's beer buyer, gave me some quick answers. Local hops keep money in the local economy, eliminate unnecessary middlemen, and to help create a product with a local terroir, a taste unique to the area's climate and soil.
In an email, Gelsthorpe wrote: "These relationships de-commodify an individual's connection with the pint and import an appreciation into an otherwise neglected or 'thought-less' beverage. Too long have the big guys told us what to drink and how to drink it."
Mike Gooding, president of the Idaho Hop Commission, believes a younger generation of Idaho hop growers are interested in working with craft brewers, but his daughter and hop grower Diane Hass told me it's tough for sympathetic farmers in Idaho to cater to what is still a nascent craft-brewing industry. It's much easier, she said, for hop farmers to build relationships in states with a higher concentration of craft brewers.
"There are some farms that that's all they do in Oregon and eastern Washington," Hass said. She mentioned Gayle Goschie and Pat Leavy in Oregon's Willamette Valley and Virgil Gamache and Puterbaugh Farms in Washington's Yakima Valley, all hop growers who cater, in part, to the craft-beer industry.
Autumn is one time of year, though, when hop growers and beer makers can meet face to face. That's fresh or wet hop beer season, when brewers add freshly picked hops to their beer to celebrate the harvest and give their brews a more-delicate hoppiness than they get from the dried or pelletized hops.
"Fresh-hop beers have a nice big, green, grassy hop flavor to them," Colby said as he poured me a pint.
The hops have to be brewed within 24 hours of picking to maintain their fleeting flavor. Even the big-contract hop growers will occasionally open their gates during the fall so local brewers can pick up a few bags of freshly harvested cones. In Colby's case, friends bring fresh hops directly to him.
"We actually have people who grow hops and bring them into the brewery. We put out a big tarp on the floor, we have hop-picking parties, and for every 30 minutes that you pick hops, you get a free beer."
As I wiped a big beer mustache off my face, Colby pointed to several first-place fresh-hop beer awards hanging on his brewery walls.
"I love hops," he said in the earnest tone of a true believer. "To me, hops are what make beer beer."