So, what exactly is a hop? Even if you love craft beer, there's a good chance you've never held one of the bright green, pinecone-shaped flowers, let alone walked a row of hop vines, which can tower 25 to 30 feet tall. Yet without hops, your drink would hardly be modern beer at all.
"They add the flavor [to beer] from the lupulin glands that are within the hop for the pollen, and each different variety has a different kind of smell—you know, if it's peach or mango or pine or tropical—and that is what gives the beer the taste," said Brock Obendorf, chairman of the Idaho Hop Growers Commission.
Lupulin glands are the sticky yellow centers of the hop flowers. They hold resins and essential oils, and render not only flavor notes but also the bitterness associated with hop-heavy brews like IPAs and ales.
Because of the craft beer boom of the last decade, hop production in the U.S. is on a collision course with the sun. Between 2012 and 2018, national hop acreage increased nearly 95%, according to data gathered by Hop Growers of America, and in 2018, Idaho surpassed Oregon to become the No. 2 hop-producing state in the nation, with only Washington outstripping its production (though by a wide margin). The Gem State is responsible for 15.2% of the nation's hops, pretty much all of which eventually make their way into glasses of amber.
After they're harvested, hops are cooled, processed (they can be used fresh, dry or ground and shaped into pellets) and distributed to brewers. In Idaho, Mill 95 in Parma is a hub for those latter-stage steps, and currently mills only hops grown in the Gem State.
"Growers and brewers benefit from the ability to quickly and economically cool freshly harvested and baled hops, [which] is essential to preserve the essential bittering and flavor characteristics they bring to beer," Mill 95 Sales Manager Meagen Anderson wrote in an email. She added that more than 6,000 of Idaho's 8,000-plus acres of hops are grown in the area straddling Highway 95—a development that gave the mill its name.
In 2018, Idaho hops yielded an annual crop weighing over 16,000
pounds tons and brought in more than $86 million for the state economy. But Obendorf said that only a small percentage of the hops grown in Idaho stay in the Gem State, and that just nine hop farms, all located in Canyon County near Wilder, produce Idaho's commercial hops, Gooding Farms, HopLand USA and Jackson Hop Farm among them. As for the future of the industry, Obendorf doesn't see the growth continuing at the same breakneck pace.
"It's going to level off a lot," he said, "Only so many hops can be consumed. People can only drink so much beer."
Anderson took a more optimistic view.
"There has been a tremendous investment in this region, which positions Idaho to continue to compete in the global hop market for generations to come," she wrote, adding, "The future is very bright!"