Upstream Battle: Why Salmon-Safe Beer Matters

More brewers are sourcing hops from farms committed to preserving salmon habitats

Almost all the hops that end up in U.S. craft beers come from two watersheds: those of the Pacific Northwest’s Yakima River and Willamette River. But hop farming doesn’t always play nice with its neighbors. Take, for instance, salmon. Agricultural runoff, wetland disruption, erosion, and irrigation can make it difficult for a salmon to get past third base. Marvin Gaye, alas, will not work. Salmon need clean water and few impediments in order to get their spawn on.

There are a few breweries who are taking up the cause of the salmon. New Belgium recently announced that it would source 10 percent of its hops from salmon-safe farms. “We’d increase the percentage if there were more hops available,” says Katie Wallace, assistant director of sustainability at New Belgium. Farmers are just starting to think in terms of salmon safety, and so demand for salmon-safe hops has outpaced the supply. “If you grow them, we will buy them,” Wallace says.

It’s messages like the one from New Belgium that farmers need to hear before they adjust their practices, says Dan Kent of Salmon Safe. Salmon Safe is a nonprofit group that certifies farms as salmon-friendly. “It can mean profound changes for the growers. And it’s typically more expensive to grow salmon-safe hops.” So if a brewer wants salmon-safe hops, they’ll need to get more farmers on board.

Kent says that’s pretty much how the salmon-safe certification came to hops farms. Salmon Safe, based in Portland, had been struggling to get momentum in the wine industry for 15 years. But three years ago, brewers from New Belgium, Deschutes Brewery, and Hopworks Urban Brewery approached Salmon Safe. The breweries wanted to connect with farmers who had sustainable sympathies and convince those farmers to start growing salmon-safe hops. “Brewers are leading the way on this. They see money in it; this is where the market is heading.”

For now, only a handful of breweries are using salmon-safe hops. But if you care about the knocking of salmon boots (aka the proliferation of a keystone species in the Pacific Northwest), ask your local brewer about salmon-safe ingredients. Show them that there’s a market for sustainable, environmentally friendly beer.