On the Culture Front: Hops, Stillness and Lively Conversation

I realized there are levels of quiet while sitting in a kayak on a lake in Elk Mountain Farms in Bonners Ferry, ID last summer. There is little else in this town that grew out of a river crossing for gold prospectors in the 19th century, and that's probably not a coincidence. One of these levels is a lull of muted sound that often passes for silence. It's what I hear in my apartment or while walking down a hallway alone. This was different. When I stopped paddling and the ripples in the water disappeared what was left was a vacuum where sound previously existed but is now pristinely hollow. A clarity and calmness washed over me as I dipped my hand in the ice-cold water and heard a small "whoosh" and nothing else. Each moment felt more important, more pronounced. I wondered what it would be like if all of life could be this isolated and punctuated. Is this how the hop farmers here feel?

The farm is owned by the massive beer conglomerate AB InBev and served for many years as the main source of hops for watery beer king Budweiser. It's now the domain of Goose Island, and its fields are filled with a rich variety of hops: Amarillo, sorachi ace, mount hood, saaz, hallertau, centennial, cascade, nugget, and millennium. The harvesters I spoke to on a visit last year though still drink Bud. The harvest is a crazy thing to witness. Towering trellises line endless rows filled with green orbs of hops that reach eighteen feet high. At 1700 hundred acres, this is the largest contiguous hop farm in the US. Standing in the midst of the fields, it's easy to feel the rest of the world disappear. It feels like a giant maze, though easily navigable to those in the know by the markings on each row.

Goose Island's acquisition by AB InBev in 2011 was not the first of its kind, but it did set a precedent for other like Blue Point and Elysian to follow. The Goose Island brewers insist that they are given free reign and the range of hops grown here speaks to that, but even conceding that point, there is more to craft brewing than the ingredients and even the product. It's a point I stubbornly hammer away at with Andy Goeler, who took the reins as CEO when Goose founder John Hall retired. Goeler is affable with open-minded intelligence and brand savvy as we talk over a ridiculously good dinner prepared by chef Jeremy Hansen, bused in from his restaurant in Spokane, Washington. The dish that stays in my mind (if sadly not my stomach) is a white chocolate braised pork belly, which is the ultimate blend of savory and sweet. It's paired with Goose's Sofie, a Belgian style saison aged in wine barrels with citrus peel that's equal parts quaffable and refined. I stare up from the table, which has been set up amidst the hop fields and wonder which beer each of the green orbs will soon be.