Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.’s hop farm is an eco-friendly endeavor
Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. has long been known for its commitment to sustainable practices. It boasts, for instance, one of the biggest privately owned solar arrays in the United States. And in 2011, a whopping 99.7 percent of the brewery’s solid waste “was diverted from the landfill through creative measures that encourage reuse, recycling or composting of waste,” according to the brewery’s website (see column note). The year prior, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency named Sierra Nevada a Green Business of the Year for its environmental leadership in the brewing industry (see “Sierra Nevada Brewery gets top honor,” The GreenHouse, Dec, 23, 2010).
So, it should come as no surprise that the brewery’s 8-acre hop field fronting E. 20th Street, next to its solar-panel-covered parking lot, is an eco-friendly operation.
“We currently have 8 acres that are certified organic [by] Oregon Tilth,” said Mandi McKay, assistant sustainability coordinator at Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. The field—which was established in 2003 and produces Cascade, Chinook and Citra hops—“is based around the idea of our Estate [Homegrown] Ale, and you can call an ale an estate ale only if you grow your own ingredients,” she said.
“In almost all the processes, operations and general culture here [at the brewery], we definitely lean toward sustainability—we do everything with this environmental philosophy in mind,” McKay added.
For example, she said, a flock of sheep is brought in to the hop field during late winter “to do natural weed-mitigation” prior to any replanting that needs to be done in the spring. Sheep are also used to eat some of the early hop-plant growth, which makes the second growth healthier and more robust. In the fall, the brewery’s agricultural staff—headed up by Agricultural Supervisor Lau Ackerman—plants several cover crops that help make the field’s soil more conducive to hops cultivation.
Drip irrigation, flame-throwers for weed control, fish emulsion for fertilizer (“no chemical fertilizers”)—those are some other eco-friendly techniques employed in the hop field, she said.
The eco-friendliness of the brewery’s hops management goes beyond farming practices, though. Spent hops (which includes other hops not grown on-site) left over from the brewing process go, along with spent barley, to feed the brewery’s herd of cattle at Chico State’s University Farm. “We also share the spent grain and hops with cattle ranches and dairy farms within a 50-mile radius,” McKay said.
Additionally, the hops left over after making certain beers via the “torpedo process” (such as Torpedo Extra IPA)—whereby the brewed beer is “shot through a vessel of dried hops, like making tea, sort of”—are composted on-site (along with all of the food waste from Sierra Nevada’s restaurant and employee break rooms) in the brewery’s massive HotRot composting machine, the only one of its kind in the United States.
“Once it’s composted, we use all the compost on-site—in the hop field, in the [2-acre organic] restaurant garden, and we also use it in our barley field, which is about a mile and a half from [the brewery],” McKay said. Last year, the garden produced 28,000 pounds of food, which goes directly into the preparation of meals served in the restaurant.
Out at Sierra Nevada’s flourishing hop field, where row upon row of hop vines twisted clockwise up their 18-foot-long strings, Ackerman examined some of the hops cones, which resemble little green pine cones. Some of the cones had already been harvested, it being late July, and plenty more were waiting to be picked.
Ackerman—whose farming credentials include growing up on a farm in Colorado before attending Chico State, where he studied agronomy before going to work as field-crop manager at the University Farm for almost 12 years—took over the brewery’s hop farm in 2009.
“We use a lot of cover crops,” Ackerman said, “usually a mix of annual rye and vetch.” Vetch, he said, fixes nitrogen from the atmosphere, drawing it into the soil and making it available to hop vines, and rye “has a real deep root system to help open up the soil.” Ackerman plants the cover crops in early fall, so that they do their work all winter long before they are mowed in late spring.
Once the perennial plants pop out of the ground and begin growing in the springtime, “I always start with beneficial-insect release,” said Ackerman. “We have a nice native population of ladybugs—they will eat the mites. Mites are my biggest headache—weeds and [two-spotted spider] mites.”
“We try to encourage them to stick around,” he said of the ladybugs. Ditto for the bug known as the spider-mite destroyer—Stethorus punctillum—which “looks like a black ladybug.”
As for weed eradication, “We bring the sheep in early on. We have to get them out at least 90 days before harvest, because you can’t have poop in your fields 90 days before harvest,” according to Oregon Tilth certification standards.
Ackerman also employs lawnmowers, weed eaters, the aforementioned flame-weeders and good old hand-pulling of weeds.
“[Weeds] are a headache all season long,” Ackerman said. The most troublesome? “Johnson grass. We dug out tens of thousands of rhizomes this year and it’s still back. This stuff just keeps coming back—so we just keep doing battle.”
The hop vines also benefit from nighttime lighting near the field. Those on the west side of the field, near the solar parking lot, grow faster than others farther from the lot because of lights that are on throughout the night, Ackerman said. The same goes for plants along the north border of the field, which benefit from the street lights on E. 20th Street.
New to growing hops when he came to work for Sierra Nevada, Ackerman reflected upon his job as hops farmer. “I’d grown dozens of crops, but not hops,” he said. “It’s a tricky [crop]. And, you know, you grow it, they make beer [with it], and you were a part of it—and that’s pretty cool.”