Hop Yard: An Interview With Lau Ackerman

It’s Spring! You can tell because it’s not really cold anymore and it’s not yet blisteringly hot. Birds are tweeting, bees are buzzing, there’s a luscious hint of jasmine in every breeze, the Thursday Night Market is happening, and backyard gardeners are gearing up for having way too many tomatoes this summer. Chico locals know that this is also the time that the hops are popping up in the hopyard next to the Sierra Nevada Brewery. As they begin their spring climbs toward the heavens, by summertime those comely cones will be ready to get in our beers.

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As a budding backyard gardener myself, I’ve been really curious about the hopyard and the estate garden. I know people who are even growing hops in their backyards for homebrewing. I don’t homebrew, but last year I wasn’t a gardener either. I decided to get the dirt on what has become an iconic vision of springtime in Chico. And to really get dirty, one has only to seek out Lau Ackerman. Ackerman is the Agriculture & Landscape Supervisor at Sierra Nevada. He handles the growing of the local hops and barley, the two-acre estate garden, and all the landscaping.      hops2

Ackerman grew up on a farm in Southwest Colorado, graduated from Chico State, went into the Peace Corps for a couple of years, and then came back and worked at the University Farm for 12 years. He ended up at the brewery four years ago. “This is exactly what I want to be doing. I enjoy doing organic agriculture. It’s not easy, but it is rewarding. It’s fun to be involved in something more than agriculture, it’s neat to be involved in all these projects. And to be a farmer that works for the brewery is just a home-run, it’s a good thing,” laughs Ackerman.

Where did the barley and hops come from originally?

“A few sources, but mainly the Yakima Valley up in Washington. We’re working with growers growing rhizomes up there and bringing them down here. Then from those we can propagate our own. The barley seed has mostly come from the Klamath Basin.”

Though the hopfield looks pretty vast, it only represents a fraction of the amount of hops used in regular production. “The estate hops and barley are mainly for the Estate Ale that comes out in September sometime. Then, if I do my job well, we’ll have extra and we can do single-hop beers, Beer Camp can use it, and this year some of our estate barley went into the Ovila Saison. Some went into the Rhizing Bines collaboration with Dogfish Head,” says Ackerman.

Any tips for badass backyard gardeners when it comes to growing hops?

hops10  “It’s pretty hard to get it wrong in a backyard sense. As long as it’s getting plenty of sunshine and water and something to eat—be it compost or whatever—and something to climb, they’re going to be happy.”

Can you grow enough hops in your backyard to homebrew? 

“One rhizome will grow a plant. Let’s say if you had six or eight healthy rhizomes going, the first year you’re not gonna get much. But the second and third year you’ll start getting a pretty good harvest. You’ll get a decent amount of cones and probably be able to brew up a five-gallon batch.” Ackerman, a self-proclaimed homebrew failure, still grows hops in his own backyard for a collaborative homebrew effort with friends. “You just pick them off once they’re ready. I pick them fresh and put them in ziploc bags in my freezer. They’ll be fine like that for homebrewing. We can also put the fresh stuff in for a dry hop.”

What about the new brewery? North Carolina seems like Narnia, can they grow hops in Narnia?

“Oh yeah, they can. I don’t know exactly what our plans are for the brewery out there, but just across the French Broad River is a university experiment station and they’re growing some hops.”

Sheep!

“We’re running sheep in the hopyard every spring. They do a great job eating weeds. Typically when the first growth of the hop plant comes up, you want to cut it back somehow. The second growth is usually healthier and more vigorous. Sheep do that. They eat the weeds, they’re out there working in the evening when we go home. Our gardener, Cheetah, owns the sheep. It saves us tractor time and diesel and they’re just out there eating and doing their thing. They’re happy and we’re happy. When it’s time to string, then we get the sheep out.”     DSCF3355

Veggies! Is the vegetable garden sustaining the restaurant?

“It helps. The volume that we do out there is huge. Thousands of pounds of produce come out of the garden every year. We’ve had really good potato crops, rainbow carrots, and heirloom tomatoes have been pretty popular. We did a lot with squash in soups and stuff. We grow our own garden starts in the greenhouse and our own flowers to put in front of the brewery too.”

Can the general public get in there and poke around the hopyard?

“We just started doing our sustainability tours on the weekends. And that focuses a little less on the brewing process and a little more on what we do like CO2 recovery, wastewater treatment, the garden, the hops…we’ll take people right out there. You can look at the compost facility, the HotRot. The tour ends at the garden and we have a little beer trailer set up so you can do a little beer tasting out there. And you can look around the garden, look around at the hops, walk into the garden. It’s a neat opportunity to see a little more than the brewery proper. And everything’s free.”

When do the hops get bangin’ huge and ready to pick?

“That’s gonna be a little bit of a slow process, but now that it’s warming up it’ll be quicker.  We started training the bines up the strings [three] weeks ago. We’ve got some stuff still pretty small, we’ve got other stuff that’s four feet up the string. As we get into June, you’ll really start to see some growth out there. And come mid-July, everything should be really tall and start to get really bushy. We typically start harvesting in mid-August. Between early to mid-July and when we harvest, they’re awesome. They start putting on little spurs and flowers around mid to late June. You’ll see the cones start to grow, and that’s what we want. One thing though, if you’re very patient and you’re growing them in your backyard, you can grab a beer and actually watch them grow. In the time that it takes to finish a pint, you can see one of those bines go all the way around the string. They go clockwise around, and about a beer later they’ve gone all around the string.”

What’s the difference between a bine and a vine?

“Vines have tendrils. A vine will climb using tendrils, like a grapevine. But a bine will just twist itself around whatever it’s growing on. Hops are bines, and as long as they have something to climb, they’ll just start curling around it in a clockwise direction. If you try to wrap it around counterclockwise it’ll just fall off.”

Weird! Why would it do that?

Ackerman laughs, “I don’t know why they do that. People have asked me if New Zealand hops grow backwards, and I said ‘No, I don’t think so…just upside down.’”

Any top secret frankenhops projects going on?  hops7

“We’re working on a collaborative research project. We’re interested in looking at new varieties and a type of hop that’ll grow better in the valley, that’ll have the flavors and aromas that we want in our beers.”

Sustainability Tours are being held Friday–Sunday at 11:30AM, 1:30PM, and 3:30PM. Book online at www.sierranevada.com

Fun Facts:

The ropes that bines climb are made out of coconut fiber.

Rhizomes have eyes, like potatoes, and from each
eye a hop plant can grow.

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