How to Grow Hops – An Interview With Idaho Hop Farmer Brock Obendorf
In August 2022, the Brews Less Traveled Podcast invited professional hop farmer Brock Obendorf onto the show for a discussion about Idaho’s hop production. During the discussion, Obendorf walked podcast hosts Brian Hatheway and Isaac Bell through the basics of growing hops.
Obendorf’s family has been growing hops since the Great Depression, so the hop farmer brings a wealth of knowledge and industry trends to any hop farming discussion. In 2019, Idaho hop farms produced 14.3% of all hops grown nationwide, making Idaho the second-most productive state behind only Washington.
Read our interview with Obendorf below. *Please note, some edits have been made for readability. For the full, unedited interview, please watch or listen to Episode 62 of the Brews Less Traveled Podcast, which can be found on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts and YouTube.
Brian Hatheway: How’s it going, Brock?
Brock Obendorf: Hey guys, it’s going great. Thanks for having me. I’m the Chairman of the Idaho Hop Growers Association and owner of Obendorf Farms. My brother and I run all of our farms. We farm hops, onions, corn, wheat, beans and we have cattle. But hops are our main thing.
I’ll start with a little history of how we came here. Originally, my grandpa’s dad moved from Germany to Indiana in the early 1900s. And then they put a big water project in called the Wilder Irrigation District, or the Boise Project, which is the river—the Boise River—that goes through Boise, Idaho.
They built the canals from 1915 to 1918. My grandpa’s dad came and built those canals. As they were doing that, they were going to get a lottery to where they could get their own 40 acres of land. And so the whole purpose was to come over here, start a new life, start a farm and start with irrigation water. Unlike Indiana, which is a little hilly, it’s flat here—and dry.
My grandpa, he was born in 1924. I’m a fourth generation farmer in Idaho, but a third generation hop farmer. My grandpa took over the farm when he was 12 or 13 because his dad died. He kind of had to take care of the family. He was the second person in Idaho to ever raise onions, and maybe one of the third or fourth people in Idaho to raise hops. By the time he was 24, he had his first hop field. He planted it in 1948. One of the neighbors came over from Oregon, and asked him, “Hey, do you want to try hops?” And he said, “Well, you know, nothing ventured, nothing gained. Might as well try it.” So that’s kind of where it all started.
Isaac Bell: I’m sitting here being like, “I wasn’t responsible enough to like do anything at 13 years old. I can’t imagine something like, “Here’s the hop farm, son.”
Brian: I couldn’t keep a wallet for a week at 13.
Brock: It was the Great Depression. I mean, they had some chickens, a milk cow and had a barn. I mean, that’s what they lived off of.
Isaac: Brian can’t even keep a succulent alive.
Brock: Inside plants are tough.
Isaac: For those of us that don’t know, can you give us a brief rundown of what the growth cycle for hops is and how that works?
Brock: Hops are perennial. We grow hops on 18-foot trellises. We start in spring and if we’re going to plant a new field, we get a rhizome, which we will dig off of another field. Or, we get a pot and we take leaf cuttings and then start a new plant.
Once that’s done, that’s in March. Then in April, we twine. All of the twining is done by hand—we do a half hitch knot. We have these twining carts that carry thousands of twines on them, and we have to tie every single twine. From there, it’s latched into the ground.
As the hops grow, we try to train during the month of May. We’ll start training from May 10 to June 1, and our goal is to hit the Summer Solstice to get the ideal amount of growth to get our highest yield. We have different training dates for different varieties, in which they have different harvest times. Right around the Fourth of July, we want to be at the top of the wire. By July 20, that’s about when they’re starting to put cones on.
Throughout the summer, we spray and we have a cover crop that we grow to keep our beneficial bugs alive for sustainable farming. We plant mustard, radish, triticale, barley—all kinds of stuff in there. Our main goal is just to take care of the land and keep the beneficial bugs healthy, and keep the dust down for spider mites.
We water all season, we’re spraying and then harvest comes along, which is usually August 27. That’s about when things are ripe. We test all of our varieties and see which ones have the correct dry matter.
The dry matter is the amount of moisture that’s in the berry, and that will tell you how ripe that plant is. If the dry matter is high, you know it’s not ready. If it’s lower than you’re closer to being able to harvest.
Isaac: I’m pretty much an expert because I’ve grown hops for the first time this year in my backyard. When you say you train the hops on the bine, are you saying you are doing that by hand?
Brock: We have crews, but that’s all by hand. We have to train the bines to grow clockwise, to follow the sun. That’s a tip for people growing hops in their backyard: they need to follow the sun. Then you’ve got to put them in a sunny, sunny spot. They don’t like the shade.
Isaac: So for the entire farm, you’re going out there and training by hand?
Brock: We train by hand. Yep. At harvest, we hang all of our vines by hand. We have a crew of about 400 people that harvest day and night. It’s a 30-day harvest.
Brian: That’s what I was going to say, because it doesn’t stop there. You spend all spring and summer caring for the hops as they’re growing, and then you have a five week period where it is nonstop work of processing those hops.
Brock: Per variety, you get one week to pick them. They’re either too green or too ripe. You’ve got to be ideal on that.
Brian: I’ve heard from some brewers that, when you pick—let’s say Simcoe—it can lean more piney or more fruity depending on where it gets picked. And I guess that has to do with the oil concentrations in there and that dry matter.
Brock: Simcoe is actually the one of the first varieties we pick. We have 22 different varieties. So we start picking Simcoe, then we’d pick Amarillo, then we’ll move to Chinook, and then we’ll pick Citra, then Mosaic and Cascade.
We also raise a bunch of other high alpha varieties like Zeus, or Apollo, which is a Steiner variety. We have Cashmere, and we have all kinds of experimental varieties. It just goes on and on.
Brian: American hops used in the industry are grown in the Pacific Northwest, and people may know of Yakima Valley and Willamette Valley. Recently, Idaho has become the second-largest hop producer out of all states. What do you think led to to that boom and growth in Idaho hop production?
Brock: Obviously, the craft industry has experienced a lot of growth. People are using a lot of the newer varieties. Between Washington and Idaho, you can plant a baby hop and get 70%-100% of a full crop. When you want a new variety, you can change out faster. You can be nimble and fill that demand. We’re a little faster to change the markets. Hops grow really well down here.
Brian: Is that a climate thing? Is that a soil thing?
Brock: It’s soil and climate. Hops have to grow on the 45th parallel. They’re going to be between [the 40th parallel or the 50th parallel]. You know, that’s the range around the world when they’re all grown.
Isaac: Do you have a favorite hop?
Brock: Yeah, I have quite a few of them. I love Mosaic, it is my favorite hop; it grows very well. It’s great to pick and it dries nicely. It’s just a beautiful hop. Citra is another amazing hop. El Dorado is amazing. Cascade is amazing. Chinook grows better in Idaho than probably anywhere in the world. I think Simcoe is tough to raise. Centennial is one we don’t raise here. They’re just a little too tough.
Isaac: How many of the hops you produce are turned into pellets?
Brock: I would say 95%. We sell all of our hops to brokers who come in. They go from there all over the world. So some hops, if they ended up at, say Victory Brewing in Pennsylvania—they use whole leaf hops, or if they end up at Sierra Nevada—they use whole leaf hops. But that’s very few pounds. Most of it is pelleted.
I love Mosaic, it is my favorite hop; it grows very well. It’s great to pick and it dries nicely. It’s just a beautiful hop.
Isaac: Is there a range of the most expensive hop to your lowest-priced hop?
Brock: I think Mosaic and Citra have the highest demand right now. … Hops range anywhere from $3 to $15. One could yield way more in the one field, and one could be in demand.
Brian: So demand and average yield is usually what is driving those prices?
Brock: Yeah, and I mean our growing cost as well. With inflation and everything that’s happened, it’s really that our cost of production has gone way up.
Brian: When I was actively homebrewing, Amarillo was always expensive. Citra was always expensive. Mosaic was always expensive, and it seemed like those, for lack of a better word, ‘cool’ hops were the most expensive.
Brock: They were in demand. And, you know, hops cost a lot of money to raise.
Isaac: I’m wondering if you have any tips for those of us that are growing hops at home, or for novice hop growers?
Brock: The only tips I have are planting in the sun where they can grow roots deep down in the ground. Pots are only gonna last so long. Make sure you’re watching your bugs. There are little sprays you can get from your local stores. But yeah, they’re not really that hard to raise.
Isaac: Plant them in the sun and let them go.
Brock: Yeah, and don’t water them too much. You know, they like having wet feet, but not all the time.
Brian: I’ve had homebrewer friends grow hops in their backyard in a place they were renting. And then they go to dig it up, and there is this giant root ball that they didn’t expect to be there. Do you have recommendations for how to get those giant root balls out of the ground?
Brock: Yeah, we struggle with it as well. We have big rototillers that we use in the ground.
Brian: I don’t think a lot of people know that hops at one time did grow fairly wild. They are not a weed, but they’re very much like a weed. Right?
Brock: A lot of the settlers brought them over. They may have come from the UK, they may have come from Germany. I think hops just naturally started growing wild. And males and females and all sudden different kinds of hops are out there. That just kind of happened. I know a lot of mining towns would take hops there so they could have a little brewery. A lot of mining towns have old hops on the sides of buildings in the upper United States.
Brian: What is something that you personally wish Idaho was more well known for?
Brock: I don’t think a lot of people realize how many hops are in Idaho, and how big this industry has become and how serious we are about things. I mean, Idaho is known for potatoes, but I think some of the best hops in the world come out of here too. I wish we were known for better hops.
Brian: Thank you so much, Brock, for joining us.
Brock: Thanks for having me. It was pretty fun to chat about hops.
Brian: Where can folks at home learn more about Idaho hot farmers and your farm?
Brock: You can go to our website. You can see our family and our history and all the things we do. It also has all of the names of all the other farmers. That’d be your best spot.
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