Guest mini-series by Jessica Doerffel
What were two Colorado girls with available vacation time, little money, and a passion to drink beer to do with 5 days? Work on hops farms for a free night stay, you say? Yes, that is what my friend Joy and I decided to do, and it was utterly a glorious and random adventure!
After remembering my chef friend Matt’s decision to quit work and ride a bike to neighboring farms on the East coast in exchange for a free night’s stay and meals, it suddenly hit me when planning a vacation on nothing, how genius he was. I decided this would be the only way I, with a very limited budget, would be able to see Oregon and Washington. So for a minimal fee (under $50), I joined a farm-stay program. This organization allows one to put in a few hard hours of work (we’re talking four and under but it depends on the farm you choose), in exchange for a free night stay and at least two meals. Now, don’t let this fool you. A “night stay” can mean anything, from sleeping in someone’s barn, crashing on a yurt, or striking it rich and staying in someone’s home, like we did – with the added bonus of a shower,which can vary. Did I mention we each had our own bedroom and a bathroom?
Our search for farms was made easier as we chose hops farms. If we were going to work on a farm and feed our hunger for beer, what better way to do this than to learn and experience this incredible ingredient that goes into beer making? Important to note: research the farm and the people you will be working for. Nothing at all against drum circles and UFO gatherings, but we both wanted a work hard/drink hard have fun experience. So, we chose probably the best family possible to stay with, which were the folks at Alpha Beta Hops. I’ll tell you just how incredible these folks were in bit.
I do have to mention that Joy and I were high school friends ten years ago. As high school-aged kids, we made some pretty intelligent decisions. So it was perfect that my Mom, who typically caught us after making such intelligent decisions, sent me a letter with a note that simply read “be smart, not stupid. send pictures, not facebook.” The phrase be smart, not stupid was a catchphrase for us on this adventure and it was perfect.
Day one consisted of checking into our hotel–rate of 39.00, not bad–and beginning the search for the best dive bar to research our evening and find local music. Working in the restaurant industry, it’s best to leave this to the experts. After asking several servers, we found our way to Scooter’s. A Jameson and a Ninkasi IPA later, we found that the McMenamins Crystal Ballroom, conveniently just around the corner, was hosting the Dandy Warhol’s. Sponsored by Jack Daniels and VooDoo Donuts, the evening provided music on their spring bound floor which made walking/dancing that much more fun. Pizza and donuts and more importantly drinks – all free. For my first time in Portland, I found the community to be incredibly hospitable, fun, and one you can thoroughly enjoy on a limited budget with a little bit of research.
Day two was a tad blurry. However, we found our essentials. Coffee at Stumptown (if you have ever been to Blue Bottle in San Francisco, this was an equal contender for incredible coffee), VooDoo Donuts and then rental car–39.00 a day–to make our way South to Ashland, OR, just a little hour north of California. Joy and I decided that our gifts to the farms were going to be donuts. So purchasing VooDoo Donuts gigantic “Cock-N-Balls” donut may have been in poor taste for some, but maybe they would find the humor and we could start the stay off with a laugh…we hoped. All of this I may add was under $15 combined and worth every cent.
Warren Zevon on the radio was another essential for the perfectly rainy and beautiful trip south. With breweries lined up to meet, who used ABH’s fresh Caldera hops, while driving several hours in the rain did not seem bad compared to the incredible IPA’s at Caldera Brewery and Standing Stone Brewery which lay ahead.
We were welcomed to Alpha Beta Hops farm by driving up a long dirt path to horses, ducks, sheep, you name it. Husband and wife partners in crime, Steve (who has an incredible beard) and Rebecca, greeted us with open arms. ABH is a family run business whose commitment to green principles and a quality product is truly amazing. Some of the green principles they use include: organic compost, 120 yards of soil untouched by any non-organic fertilizers or pesticides, and are certified 100% by USDA Organic by Oregon Tilth.
After immediately loving how warm and welcoming they were to us, we decided it was a good time to share some donuts. Luckily they found the humor in the cream filled treat and our stay started off comfortable and utterly perfect as they showed us to our cozy rooms. Rebecca even dropped a few off color jokes–we did well.
Some things we learned after hanging up irrigation lines and raising the young hop vines out of the hay: 1) hops farmers have a great life – it’s a lot of hard work – but it’s a great life. If you are a home brewer like Steve, you truly have a quality ingredient to use for your craft. You also get to enjoy the fruits of your labor pretty regularly with friends and family. Fortunately for us, the family shared their homemade meals with us that were excellently prepared by Rebecca and a pint of Steve’s homebrew. 2) This is an expensive business. ABH uses as many green and sustainable practices as possible. You even get to be creative, as we saw with Steve resembling Doc from Back to the Future with his “hops picker.” Mind you, he designed and tested this himself with the goal of working more efficiently. 3) You get to educate and give back to your community. ABH’s sells its fresh hops to local breweries which support Oregon’s local initiative, as seen in Standing Stone Brewery “I Heart Oregon” beer made only of local ingredients. This brewery was joined by Oakshire, Ninkasi, and Deschutes in the acclaimed craft beer event, SAVOR, in Washington, DC, this past June. They’re kind of a big deal.
Word to the wise, don’t even think about driving after even one beer. We heard numerous horror stories about people being pulled over, so walking home along this beautiful country side was not painful. Also, sending a picture of us posing in a picture hitch hiking to my Mom with the subject line reading: being smart, not stupid, was a very smart decision. Day one and two – success.
Check back soon for the next few days of The Beer Diaries