BONNERS FERRY, Idaho — Countless types of hops, giving beers their distinct, intriguing, and complex flavors — whether bitter, spicy, floral or citrusy — thrive in northern Idaho at Elk Mountain Farms, one of the world’s largest hops farms at 1,700 acres.
“We have more than 500 experimental varieties and about 10 commercial types,” said Ed Atkins, general manager of the Anheuser-Busch farm nestled in the scenic Kootenai River Valley near Bonners Ferry 10 miles south of the Canadian border.
“Like children, they all have their own personalities and specific needs,” said Atkins, 54, who has learned of their quirks since he began working there in 1987 when the farm was established. The location was chosen because it is near the 39th parallel with growing conditions similar to those of Germany, where hops have flourished for centuries.
“Hops require constant attention and different training for climbing, spraying and watering, so it’s labor intensive,” said Atkin, who oversees 20 full-time and 180 seasonal employees. “The types are also susceptible to different diseases and pests.”
Despite being high maintenance, hops thrive with summertime fields resembling lush green walls as the vines climb 18-foot-tall trellises and cascade down the other side. The valley’s long, warm days and cool nights provide ideal growing conditions to nurture the finicky plants’ flavorful cones.
Anheuser-Busch relies on the farm’s Saaz, Williamette and Cascade varieties.
“Saaz is one of the world’s oldest varieties and has a spicy ... flavor,” he said. “Our Hallertau has a subtle woody aroma.”
While most of the crop is grown for Anheuser-Busch’s breweries, other types like Mt. Hood and Centennial are destined for brewers of increasingly popular craft beers.
“In the past 10 years, we’ve planted more types for the craft market, but Budweiser is still our flagship,” he said. “We’re always developing disease-free, high yielding varieties to fulfill a diverse demand.”
Along with ideal temperatures and daylight hours, the farm has adequate irrigation.
“Being above the Kootenai River with a high water table and spring runoff from the mountains, some years we have seepage and excess water,” he said. “We had to install drain tiles in the fields to divert water to tanks and drainage ditches.”
To fine-tune water delivery, drip irrigation is used.
“Our system allows us to monitor and regulate specific amounts of water for different varieties,” he said. “It also reduces fertilizer runoff.”
During the intense month-long harvest starting in mid-August, workers rely on six customized combines.
“There are only about 30 of these nationwide,” he said. “What’s unique about ours is they’re locally designed and built, with our maintenance staff doing most of the work.”
The 11-foot-wide cutters slowly move along the trellises and can be raised from 16 to 22 feet, depending on the need.
Once harvested, the cones, or flowers, are dried in kilns, then cooled, compressed and wrapped before being shipped to a plant in Yakima, Wash., to be made into pellets.
“It’s really challenging to raise hops,” Atkins said, “but there’s nothing I’d rather be doing even after working here 32 years. I grew up farming, so it’s in my blood and exciting every spring to have a new beginning and to see the fruits of your labor in the fall.”