Thompson Hops’ brings the crop to local breweries

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By Anna Genasci, Stanislaus County Farm Bureau, Director of Education & Communication

Here we are in the Central Valley enduring another set of 100-plus days. Now, I am not a big drinker, but every once in a while, a cold beer does taste good! But I have never put much thought into where that beer comes from. Like so many foods we enjoy, its story begins on a farm.

In the 1950s, the Thomsen Family began farming sugar beets and tomatoes in Pleasanton, Calif. In the 1970s they moved their family farm to Tracy, Calif., diversifying their operation to include more permanent crops like almonds and alfalfa.

As we know, the next generation tends to generate some new ideas. And that was exactly the case for Zack Reinstein, son of Kathy Thomsen, second generation.

As a young adult in his career, Zack learned about brewing. That experience sparked an interest. According to Zack, hops were once farmed in California but now, most of the large hop operations are in the Pacific Northwest (PNW), “I wanted to bring hops back to California.”

So, in 2020 Thomsen Hops was established.

“There are about 80 acres of hops growing in California, we are farming about 16 acres,” shared Zack.

So, let’s first get a little background on hops:

Hops are the flowers (also called seed cones or strobiles) of the hop plant, Humulus lupulus. They are used primarily as a bittering, flavoring, and stability agent in beer, to which, in addition to bitterness, they impart floral, fruity or citrus flavors and aromas. The hops plants have separate female and male plants, and only female plants are used for commercial production. The hop plant is a vigorous, climbing, herbaceous perennial, usually trained to grow up strings in a field called a Hopfield or hop yard, when grown commercially. Many different varieties of hops are grown by farmers around the world, with different types used for particular styles of beer.

Hops grow along a trellis, explained Zack. “Each year we string up 18-foot trellises. Hops are a perennial plant and can live up to 100 years. Our plants are three years old; it usually takes 3-4 years for a hop plant to mature.”

The hop plant, “wakes up,” about February and begins growing. The bine will wrap itself around the trellis and can grow up to a foot a day! Zack commented that hops are the second fastest growing plant in the world, just behind bamboo.

Now you may have noticed, I wrote bine not vine. They are different. The difference is how the plant grows and “holds” onto things.

Vine: A vine plant climbs using tendrils or suckers to cling onto a supporting pole. Its stem grows vertically, all the twisting and gripping is done by the tendrils.

Bine: A bine plant wraps its stem (not tendrils) in a helix around a supporting structure. The bine’s stem is the flexible, twisting part of the plant unlike the vine. A bine has stiff hairs to provide structure and solidity as it grows.

As Zack explained, by late June the cone is out. Most flower cones are produced on the upper part of the lateral branches and should be ready for harvesting in late summer.

Like other commodities grown here in California, Zack battles mites and, similar to walnuts, the hops will occasionally need sunblock applications.

In July, Zack and team will do pre-harvest checks. “We take samples and run data to see when the hops will be ready for harvest.” Zack explained how beer brewers want this data because it will indicate bitterness and help the brewers perfect their recipe. So interesting … and a hops variety in California will like taste different than that same variety grown in PNW due to California weather. “We have tropical notes, (in our hops),” smiled Zack.

Harvest in August doesn’t complete the processes. Once the cone is harvested, dried and baled, it is pelletized. In this form, the hops run more smoothly through the kettle, used during beer brewing.

Some hops are sold, “wet” and don’t include the additional processing – it all depends on what the beer brewer is hoping to create.

Zack now wears the title farm manager at Thomsen Hops and unlike the other commodities they grow, (for example their almonds go to Blue Diamond), they have to market the hops themselves.

“It was a hard market to get into. Brewers were already buying from the PNW, and happy with the product,” shared Zack.

So, with sample boxes in tow, Zack made face to face visits to local breweries to show them Thomsen Hops.

Today Thomsen Hops can be found in many breweries: Dying Breed, Altamont Beer Works and 1850 Brewing Company, just to name a few.

I asked Zack if he has had some “lightbulb” moments in the last three years. He chuckled, “I can definitely tell you how not to grow hops. It has been a lot of learn by doing. We are now a part of the California Hop Co-op, where we can share knowledge and equipment.”

As you might imagine, there aren’t many companies that manufacture hop harvesting equipment. Zack and team have had to buy equipment, then adapt, innovate and repurpose … three traits I admire amongst farmers, ranchers and dairymen.

What is Zack’s favorite part of growing hops, “it is something different every day. We get to be a pioneer in the California hop market. And, I love the aromas! Some hops smell like berries while others like pineapples. I take a lot of pride in taking our product to the brewers and then getting to drink it!”

Of course, it wouldn’t be a complete interview without me asking, “what is your favorite beer?”

Zack shared with a smile, the first time he tasted Thomsen Hops in a beer called Spinal Sap. For Zack and family, it was a, “we did it, moment.”