Cascade hops before they're harvested. Photo: Matt & Nicole Cummings/Flickr
Cascade hops before they’re harvested. Photo: Matt & Nicole Cummings/Flickr

To make beer, you need hops. To get hops, most breweries buy from farmers. But, a few actually grow the hops themselves.

Bison Brewery, based in Berkeley, joined that club this year with some unique urban hops that were grown in community gardens and front yards around Oakland. The beer made from the local hops, called Oakland’s Hop Harvest Ale, will be featured at a festival fundraiser this Saturday, Nov. 9, raising money for the Victory Garden Foundation. The foundation provided one of the places the hops were grown at the People’s Victory Garden, at 52nd and Telegraph Ave. It’s also a nonprofit organization that educates people about gardening and grows food in community gardens to give to pantries and individuals in need.

Growing local hops seems to be an inevitable next step in the evolving local food and urban homesteading movement but brewery-grade hops-growing is not widespread yet.

“It’s not very common, but I think we’re going to see more of it,” said Mark Cabrera of locally-grown hops. Cabrera is Bison’s Sales Manager and an Oakland resident. Most notably, both Sierra Nevada and Anderson Valley Brewing Company grow some of their own hops on site, which they make specialty beers from, while purchasing the rest of their hops from growers.

But, as far as Cabrera knows there aren’t any other large breweries that have grown hops right in the middle of cities like Oakland.

“Hops take up a lot of real estate,” he said.

The seedlings started off small when Cabrera planted them, smaller than a beer bottle. Photo: Mark Cabrera.
The seedlings started off small when Cabrera planted them, smaller than a beer bottle. Photo: Mark Cabrera.

The idea started when the manager of the community garden at Lake Merritt approached Cabrera last fall and asked if Bison Brewery was interested in growing in an open plot at Lake Merritt. The garden waived the fee for the brewery. Bison’s head brewer did research on the best hops plant for Oakland. They settled on the Cascade Hops, a variety that does well in less warm weather, and Cabrera got to work planting earlier this spring.

First, him and his son planted in the Lake Merritt community garden, but they had rhizomes left over. Rhizomes, seedlings that look like sticks, come in one-size large boxes and “we had about ten times as much as would fit,” said Cabrera.

But, right next to his spot in the community garden was another empty spot. He asked about it and found out the spot had just been promised to The Victory Garden Foundation. He reached out to Victory Lee, the founder of the organization, and she offered up space not at Lake Merritt but at the People’s Victory Garden, where the festival will take place. That used up some more of the seedlings, but not all.

“We ended up planting all over,” said Cabrera — his own house, two home-brewing friends’ houses, Beer Revolution and Olde Depot.

The little seedlings grew, turning into vines over the summer. At Cabrera’s house, they wrapped up the lattice-work and onto his 25-foot roof.

When it came time to harvest the flowers, though, Cabrera didn’t expect much. “Maybe one keg,” he said. Growing your own hops can be a notoriously time-consuming process. It typically takes two to three years for the hops to really take root. After harvesting, you trim the vine down to a few feet, let it hibernate over the winter, and it blooms again in the spring bigger and better.

Cabrera poses next to the vines that grew nearly 40-feet-high this summer. Photo: Mark Cabrera
Cabrera poses next to the vines that grew nearly 40-feet-high this summer. Photo: Mark Cabrera

Cabrera was pleasantly surprised, though, when they ended up with 30 pounds of hops, which turned into 40 kegs of Oakland Hops Harvest — a West Coast-style pale ale.

That special beer is or will be in the coming weeks available at Olde Depot, Saturn, Jupiter, The New Parkway Theater, Ben & Nick’s, Commonwealth and other bars in Oakland and Berkeley. Or, you can drink it for a good cause at the Hops n’ Harvest Festival.

The festival, from 1 to 5 p.m. this Saturday at the People’s Victory Garden at Telegraph Center, will have classes, workshops, dancing, music, food and, of course, beer.

Next year, Bison intends to harvest the hops again — and, hopefully, get a bigger bounty. It’ll also be looking to do similar urban hops growing in other regions like Santa Rosa and Sacramento. And, the brewery plans to reach out to homebrewers, many of whom wanted to participate or grown their own. In fact, the Hops n’ Harvest festival will include a homebrewing demonstration with the Oakland hops.

“I had no idea it was going to be this much fun,” said Cabrera.

Bison Brewery Grows Hops in Oakland, Brews Up Local Beer 4 November,2013Kelly O'Mara

  • Organic Dan

    Thanks for the great article! I look forward to meeting your readers at the Hop Harvest party!! Cheers, Organic Dan

  • VictoryGardenFound

    The product is great and the Bison Organic Brew team are the greatest! We’re looking forward to the fun … Hugs … V!


Kelly O'Mara

Kelly O’Mara is a writer and reporter in the San Francisco Bay Area. She writes about food, health, sports, travel, business and California news. Her work has appeared on KQED, online for Outside Magazine, epsnW, VICE and in Competitor Magazine, among others. Follow Kelly on Twitter @kellydomara.

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