On a Wednesday afternoon in Boise Brewing's taproom, a retired couple vacationing in the City of Trees from Spokane, Wash., planned their next move over a couple of beers. Two seats down the bar, a circle of condensation formed under a tall pour of Syringa Pale Ale—the brewery's second most popular beer after the Hip Check India Pale Ale.
"It flies off the shelf," said Boise Brewing Bar Manager Devin Kemp. "It's because of that hop. It just blows up."
The hop in question is Idaho 7. Grown by Jackson Hop Farm in Caldwell, it began as an experiment on five acres, but it's rapidly gaining traction both in Idaho and farther afield for its easy-on-the-palate citrusy flavor. A Gem State original, Idaho 7 is becoming a signature hop for one of the nation's largest hop-producing states.
What Saudi Arabia is for oil, Idaho could be for hops. Between its two primary hop-growing climate zones—the sunny reaches of the high desert in the south and the somewhat damper climes of the panhandle—the Gem State is ideal for growing the pungent beer ingredient and preservative. According to USA Hops, Idaho ranks third in hop production nationwide. It provides approximately 8 percent of U.S.-grown hops and 2 percent of all hop production in the world.
Much of that production takes place up north near Idaho's border with Canada. There, Anheuser-Busch operates a 1,700-acre farm producing a variety of European-origin hops like Saaz and Hallertau. In the Treasure Valley, however, a slew of smaller operations make use of the long summer days and warm weather to grow hops high in alpha acids. The higher the alpha acid percentage or rating, the more bitter the beer. Saaz hops, which are grown up north, typically have a 2-5 percent alpha acid content. Idaho 7's is 14-14.6 percent, giving it a rich, citrusy flavor that has made it a favorite for craft beer brewers.
"It's exceptional for dry hopping, for IPAs and pales and stuff like that—very tropical stone fruit, a little bit of pine," said Jackson Hop Farm owner Nate Jackson.
Idaho 7 grew from an experiment into a hot seller in 2015 when Sierra Nevada rolled out the Harvest Single Hop IPA-Idaho 7 varietal.
"We just had a bag of hops that was already in advanced selection. We sent them a bag and they asked if we could expand to five acres for the following year," Jackson said.
Brewers took note. The hop is now in beers made by Boise's own Sockeye Brewing and Boise Brewing, renowned Delaware-based Dogfish Head, Lagunitas and others. Jackson said his distributor has buyers nationwide, and breweries as far afield as Australia and Russia have purchased his hops.
"I expect we'll see some export demand, hopefully very strong," he said.
A year after its debut, Idaho 7 is growing on more than 100 acres in Idaho and at a small farm in Washington. In the future, Jackson said, he may expand production into the Willamette Valley in Oregon—another major hop farming region, albeit one with a radically different climate from the Treasure Valley.
Idaho 7 has given Jackson's operation a boost, but the increased demand for the experimental variety has also had an impact on the economics of hop farming itself. Typically, Jackson said, hop farmers grow harvests with high yields per acre. It's an arrangement that privileges the growth of the most consistently high-yielding varieties, and puts a damper on experimentation. Idaho 7 has changed that.
"I was more concerned with having my own than the economics and yield advantages you typically breed for. Some of the buyers are indicating that if the aroma is amazing, they'd pay the price per pound to make it work," Jackson said. "We got pretty lucky with Idaho No. 7."