Mountain Hopping

[Editor’s note: This week, Xpress debuts our new biweekly beer column, wherein our intrepid, brews-obsessed reporter takes on different facets of WNC’s brew culture. Mountain Hopping will be a dispatch-style exploration of the people and places behind the regional beer economy. Gonzo journalism? Maybe. But a first-person take outside the well-quaffed path. Mountain Hopping will supplement our Brews News column, which will continue to run biweekly as well. We think they’ll complement each other nicely, and cover lots of WNC beer bases.]

Picking these hops is kicking my ass. It’s barely noon, and already I’m yearning for a cold one and a little James Gang on the stereo. Sun and labor have transformed my body into a nexus of slime, stench and ache. And just look at those poor mitts: molasses-hued stains on fingertips, while itchy red-bumps — resembling a relief map of some heretofore undiscovered mountain range — circle both wrists.

For the inaugural installment of “Mountain Hopping” I had intended to pen a blurry-eyed dispatch from the tail end of a craft-beer binge across our fine region. Too gonzo cliché, I ultimately realized. Instead, I’m kicking things off with sobering experientiality: a sweat-soaked (half) day of helping grow and harvest a plant that has become, since sometime in Middle Ages, the most popular flavoring agent in the greatest of all alchemical practices (beer brewing).

Founded in 2005 by one Julie Jensen, who greeted me at the gates this morning in a “Don’t Worry, Be Hoppy” tee, Echoview is an audacious stab at a “sustainable” commercial farm, one specializing in four primary crops: in addition to hops, there are bees, bamboo and even solar energy. Hops, though, is big daddy. Having just hosted its First Annual Hops Festival on July 31, the farm is looking to become major player in the region.

The property, just a few miles outside Weaverville town center, is a 70-plus acre spread, the layout of which Jensen likens to an outstretched hand. It’s home to eight varieties of hops, all of them in first-, second- and third-year stages of development. Three to five years, explains Jensen, is required to produce a truly viable crop. Until then, it’s a costly slog through hardcore trial, error and correction.

Along with General Manager Ric Horst (whose Texas Ranger-like ruggedness is pure No Country for Old Men) and farmhands Ryan Wooton and Aaron West, I’m working a hop field that contains four rows of a popular variety called “cascade.” Each plant slithers up a 10-foot rope suspended from a cable. On many of the farms in Oregon and Washington machinery has replaced the act of hand picking the cones dotting the bines. But compared to the massive ventures out west, Echoview is a feisty, young upstart. We’re kicking it old school: from pungent plant to plastic cup to drying screen. Over and over and over.

As we pick — and pick some more — my temporary boss and coworkers school me in the ways of this scratchy little bastard: alphas, betas, rhizomes, moisture levels and so on. The crop, I learn, is beyond finicky. Without delving into any abstruse science, growing hops is no less laborious than the taming of the shrew. And as Horst is quick to point out, our region’s humidity and dizzying array of ravenous pests do not make the courtship any easier.

Everybody here at Echoview welcomes the daunting challenge. Their excitement stems in part from the wide-open nature of WNC’s hops economy. “The hops-farm movement in North Carolina is reminiscent of what was going on in the northwest 20 to 25 years ago,” says Chris Richards, Brewmaster over at French Broad Brewing. “Even though we’re still a few years away, everybody’s trying to create this microcosm of industry in terms of getting the hops directly from the farmers.”

Here’s the one humongous hurdle: our region is home to numerous farms mainly hawking their whole hops and/or wet hops to the homebrew scene. Yet none of them have the processing facilities needed to transform their crop into the creature of consistency commercial brewers like Richards crave: pellet hops.

Very few breweries in Beer City, USA, actually use regional hops in high-volume brewing. Instead, they purchase them from various pelletizing plants around the country, all of which are at least a day’s drive from Asheville. To ship their crop to these plants isn’t financially feasible for local growers. Hops spoil so easily that shipping time between farm and plant should really be no more than one to two hours.

To be both farmer and onsite processor is exactly the long game Echoview is playing, Horst reveals. And if their big-picture plan to produce a competitively priced pellet hop of quality succeeds somewhere down the road, it will only strengthen the regional craft-beer industry, making it a far more localized and self-reliant entity.

Jensen and her team totally understand the costs of such a top-shelf facility. In fact, they even seem energized by both the rewards and the risks.

It’s an energy that’s downright infectious. On the other hand — when’s lunch around here?

Until next time, may your foameth never overruneth.

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