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Laughing Dog Brewery on the love - and business - of hops

click to enlarge A handful of Idaho hops - GUY HAND
  • Guy Hand
  • A handful of Idaho hops

I simply wasn’t prepared for what I saw when Fred Colby, co-owner of Laughing Dog Brewery in Ponderay, pulled open the heavy door to his walk-in cooler. Instead of setting eyes on cases of craft beer, I caught the cold gaze of six very pink pig carcasses.

“Pig beer!” I blurt out reflexively, in order to suppress what would have been a high-pitched, porcine-like squeal.

“No,” Colby says, drawing out the word in a calming, cooing way. “At our annual anniversary party, we barbecue six whole pigs.”

The next day, this large brewery would be filled with friends, fresh beer and the scent of spit-roasted pork. But this day, Colby was more interested in showing me why he believed his North Idaho brewery had become so popular in six years.

To the right of the pork six-pack, he grabs a bag and opens it under my nose.

“Really stick your nose in there and smell,” Colby suggests. Suddenly I’m flung into a forest after a warm rain. I breath in deep, earthy aromas, a hint of wildflowers and the slightly bracing bite of pine.

“They can impart that same flavor into the beer,” Colby explains. Like so many craft brewmasters, Colby is a self-confessed hop-head. “Hops can be very complicated,” he says as we sniff another, very different, very citrusy variety. “And one of the things that you see in craft brewers today, in hops, is they’re adding layers of complexity into the beer. So rather than one-dimensional beers, we can build really complex, artful-tasting beers. I think that’s why it’s called craft beer. It really is a craft.”

The cone-shaped female flower of the hop plant, Humulus lupulus, a perennial related to nettles and marijuana, contains resins and oils that give beer its characteristically piney bitterness and layers of complexity. That aromatic complexity, Colby explains, is a fundamental reason his once-small North Idaho brewery has flourished for the last six years and now ships beer to 30 states and Canada.

Yet despite the pivotal role hops play in America’s burgeoning craftbeer movement, hops are often hard to come by for artisan beer makers — even in the nation’s hop-growing epicenter of Washington, Oregon and Idaho.

“Here in northern Idaho,” Colby tells me after closing the cooler door and leading me around stainless steel brewing tanks, “just north of us, we have probably one of the largest contiguous hop farms in the world — Elk Mountain Farms. They have the potential to grow 1,700 acres of hops on one farm, and for us, it’s important that they’re there because they do grow some hops for us.”

Six More Ways to Drink, Idaho-Style

Since 2005, when Laughing Dog opened in Ponderay, five more craft breweries have opened across Bonner, Kootenai and Shoshone counties with one more — Selkirk Abbey — set to open next year.

In 2007, Chase Sanborn, Dean Cooper, Herb and Tony Zanetti and, later, Rick Magnuson developed Wallace Brewing (610 Bank St, Wallace, Idaho). With beer names inspired by Wallace’s colorful history (this rugged town of 960-plus residents features a bordello museum), Wallace Brewing crafts mostly lagers and ales in 500-gallon batches like Red Honey Wheat Lager. They supply nearly three-dozen establishments across the Panhandle, including the Coeur d’Alene Casino, Capone’s and Stoneridge Golf Course. Local hops are featured in the Dirty Blonde APA, while the newbie Vindicator IPA uses Idaho-grown malted barley.

Also in Wallace, the modest North Idaho Mountain Brewing (108 Nine Mile Rd., Wallace) opened this spring in City Limits Pub. Founders Mark and Pamela Burmeister offer Mountain Amber, two pale ales, and an Irish Sunset Red. A handful of local businesses, including Kellogg’s Noah’s Canteen, carry them, and there are plans to add food operations.

A year or so after Laughing Dog opened just outside Sandpoint, brothers Mickey and Duffy Mahoney created MickDuff’s Brewing Company and restaurant (312 N. First Ave., Sandpoint). This laid-back local hangout caters to discerning palates — their website includes each beer’s color, bitterness units and type of hops — with six standard pours from the gentle Tipsy Toehead Blonde Ale to the bitterly rugged Strom Hammer IPA. Current seasonals include Ryes N Shine, brewed with 10-percent rye malt, and Saint Frigid’s Stout, which is aged in bourbon-infused oak.

Continue north on Highway 95 from Sandpoint to Bonners Ferry and discover Kootenai River Brewing Company and restaurant (Riverside and First streets, Bonners Ferry). Founded by retired Boundary County detective Mike Naumann, KRBC offers a full-color spectrum, starting with the light Pilzner. Local berries flavor the huckleberry wheat ale, while Kootenai River’s American Pale Ale drinks like a hefeweizen. Everything in this 10-barrel brewery is made with local hops and malt barley when available.

On the Idaho/Washington border, this summer Bi-Plane Brewing (4082 E. Primrose, Post Falls) took off for owners Doug and Nadine Martindale. Beers like the Gloster Gladiator Bourbon Barrel Porter and the Curtiss Jenny Cream Ale pay tribute to early aviators and World War I fighter planes.

Generating plenty of advance buzz is Selkirk Abbey (6180 E. Seltice), which will offer Belgian-style beers when it begins production in early 2012. Inspired by beers brewed in Trappist monasteries, Selkirk plans two IPAs, a saison (a light, hoppy summer ale), a fruity brown dubbel, a lambic-style beer brewed with stale hops and wild yeast, and a Belgian sour.

The origins of Selkirk Abbey point to the small (but growing) network of craft brewers and the tongue-in-cheek approach many have towards their business. According to owner Jeff Whitman, both he and Rob Wallace were homebrewers, passionate about beer. “I’m not sure anyone who fits that bill hasn’t thought of owning their own brewery,” Whitman says. (Carrie Scozzaro)

The key word in that last sentence is “some.” The fact that Colby can get any hops from local sources is unusual. Unlike the close connection winemakers have to grape growers (they are, after all, often one and the same) craft-beer makers and hop growers seldom have anything resembling a face-to-face connection.

America’s industrial brewers — what Colby diplomatically calls “domestic lager” makers — and international hop brokers dominate the hop and barley markets, reserving large quantities of ingredients before the harvest through long-standing contracts with growers. Elk Mountain Farms in Bonner’s Ferry, for instance, contracts nearly all of its hop harvest to the Budweiser-Michelob-and-Natural-Light behemoth Anheuser-Busch. Southern Idaho hop farmers sell most of their crop to hop broker S.S. Steiner.

These arrangements are understandable once you realize that craft beer amounts to only a tiny drop in America’s vast beer bucket — a piddling 4 percent of U.S. beer sales in 2008, according to the Brewers Association. Therefore small breweries are often left scrambling after the hop-scented crumbs the giant lager boys leave behind.

When a hop shortage hits, like the one in 2007, they’re left holding an empty hop bag.

Colby buys in just-large-enough quantities to make it worth Elk Mountain’s time to plant the kinds of hops he’s interested in.

“In the next couple of years, we expect our Cascade [hop] usage to go up to around 3,000 to 4,000 pounds a year,” or the equivalent of about two acres of hops, Colby says.

“Those are the types of usages that you have to see in order to get somebody to change their mindset about how they’re going to plant their fields,” he says. “It’s not worthwhile to them to plant a half an acre for a small brewery, because it’s so hard to harvest just a half an acre of hops.”

Bart Rayne, an organic farmer in Homedale, Idaho, still thought it odd that the state that grows the third-largest amounts of hops in the country couldn’t supply locally grown hops to small brewers. A while ago, he teamed up with Lance Chavez, an apprentice brewer at Sockeye Brewery in Boise, to plant and harvest a hop crop and brew beer. But they found out rather quickly how difficult it is to match farmer to brewer on a scale that works for both.

“The quantities they need to even just do small batches at the brewer level, it’s almost beyond me,” Rayne says. “To harvest on a small scale when you’re not automated, you’re basically hand-harvesting each individual cone, so it wasn’t that economical for me.”

But why even bother with local hops when they’re dried, pelletized and packaged for shipping anyway?

Matt Gelsthorpe, the beer buyer at the Boise Co-op, gave me some quick answers. Local hops keep money in the local economy, eliminate unnecessary middlemen, and help create a product with a local terroir, a taste unique to the area’s climate and soil.

In an email, Gelsthorpe writes: “These relationships de-commodify an individual’s connection with the pint and import an appreciation into an otherwise neglected or ‘thought-less’ beverage. Too long have the big guys told us what to drink and how to drink it.”

Mike Gooding, president of the Idaho Hop Commission, believes a younger generation of Idaho hop growers is interested in working with craft brewers, but his daughter and hop grower, Diane Hass, says it’s tough for sympathetic farmers in Idaho to cater to what is still a nascent craft-brewing industry. It’s much easier, she says, for hop farmers to build relationships in states with a higher concentration of craft brewers.

“There are some farms, that that’s all they do in Oregon and eastern Washington,” Hass said. She mentioned Gayle Goschie and Pat Leavy in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, and Virgil Gamache and Puterbaugh Farms in Washington’s Yakima Valley — all hop growers who cater, in part, to the craft-beer industry.

Autumn is one time of year, though, when hop growers and beer makers can meet face to face. That’s fresh or wet-hop beer season, when brewers add freshly picked hops to their beer to celebrate the harvest and give their brews a more delicate hoppiness than they get from the dried or pelletized hops.

“Fresh-hop beers have a nice big, green, grassy hop flavor to them,” Fred Colby at Laughing Dog says as he pours me a pint.

The hops have to be brewed within 24 hours of picking to maintain their fleeting flavor. Even the big-contract hop growers will occasionally open their gates during the fall so local brewers can pick up a few bags of freshly harvested cones. In Colby’s case, friends bring fresh hops directly to him.

“We actually have people who grow hops and bring them into the brewery. We put out a big tarp on the floor, we have hop-picking parties, and for every 30 minutes that you pick hops, you get a free beer,” he says.

As I wipe a big beer mustache off my face, Colby points to several first-place fresh-hop beer awards hanging on his brewery walls.

“I love hops,” he says in the earnest tone of a true believer. “To me, hops are what make beer beer.”

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