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The Hops Farmer: John Segal Jr.
Although John Segal Jr. spent many childhood summers in Washington’s Yakima Valley and once brought a block of hops to show-and-tell, the third-generation hops farmer never envisioned taking over the family business. But that’s what happened 12 years ago when his father passed away after a battle with cancer. Not only was Segal embarking on a career change—he had spent the previous 14 years in various sales and marketing positions for the media—he was entering a changing industry during a hops shortage.
“The family looked upon the farm as almost a liability,” he says. “People thought we were literally out of business.” Segal describes having to mow the weeds when inviting his first brewers to the farm in Grandview. That’s not to say he was unprepared to swap suit and tie for jeans. Shortly after college he had worked for his father for five years. His marketing experience, however, was about to come in handy.
“In 2009, I did a Google search for the top 50 craft breweries and just started cold calling them, and talking about our story,” Segal recalls. The ranch stayed afloat thanks to his passion for hops and his determination to rebuild the direct connection between farmer and brewer, a common practice today, but something of an anomaly when he began. Segal is quick to also credit the farm’s rebirth to the kindness of others, noting that introductions to other brewers by long-time customer Anchor Brewing, and later Lagunitas Brewing and Russian River Brewing Company, helped the farm grow and gain credibility.
“He’s a little bit of a maverick,” says Jeremy Marshall, master brewer at Lagunitas, one of the ranch’s early partners. “He carries on the tradition of his father, who had a reputation for calling bullshit on merchants and greed … He’s kind of a hero of the brewers.”
You could say Segal comes from a line of mavericks. His grandfather, George, started the farm 76 years ago. He had come to New York City from Boston in 1910 at age 16, selling cheese door-to-door, when he met a German immigrant who taught him about hops. They became brief partners and began growing the perennial plant in upstate New York in 1941. George Segal expanded to the Yakima Valley in 1949, a more optimal growing climate, and started a hop farmers co-op.
John Segal’s father, John Senior, eventually took over both farms, but blue mold and mildew decimated the New York bines (along with most of the hops in the region). So in 1959, he concentrated the whole operation in Yakima, while continuing to live in Westchester County, N.Y. John Senior was also the first to commercially cultivate Cascade hops, helping to shift the market from European aroma hops to US varieties.
“My father was really always kind of pissed off that the US growers didn’t have any aroma hops and that brewers paid a premium for aroma hops from Germany and Eastern Europe,” Segal explains.
Today, the 470-acre farm partners with 15 craft breweries across the country and has sold everything it has grown for the past few years. Segal remains adamant about staying small (most Washington hop farms are closer to 800 acres), which allows for more control over the crop. The farm can let the hops hang on the bines longer, and Segal says they dry their hops at a lower temperature than most (130° F versus 145° F), which also takes longer. He notes that this is important for preserving aroma.
“We’re more focused on quality than volume,” says Martin Ramos, who has been with the ranch for 21 years, managing it for the past eight. “Everything that we grow we have to harvest at the right time.” The timing of harvest is determined by running a dry matter analysis on the cones, and an oil analysis on the lupulin glands to determine when each of the 10 varieties they grow is at its peak. Each field is also put under a sensory and “feel” assessment. Once the hops are picked and separated from the leaves and stems, they travel to the kilns in the farm’s drying facility. Segal, who still lives in New York, is on the phone daily with Ramos, discussing everything from weather conditions to equipment upgrades, and visits mid-growing season and again at harvest.
It’s this attention to detail that the brewers he works with appreciate. “It’s like buying your fruit and veggies from a farmers market,” says Vinnie Cilurzo, owner of Russian River. “That’s not to say you don’t know where your hops come from when you buy them from a broker, but picking up the phone to ask John or Martin a question is just easier.”
Harvest, which begins in late August and extends 24/7 for the next month, is certainly the ranch’s busiest time. In addition to adding around 80 seasonal employees to his year-round crew of 12, Segal also invites all of the brewers he works with to the farm to assess the final product, a highly anticipated annual tradition.
“He’s a hell of a host,” says Marshall. “He typically does a Mexican barbecue, and has even been known to roll out a mariachi band. [E]veryone drinks beer and eats really spicy peppers.”
Segal admits inviting brewers to the farm is a little nerve-wracking. “It’s a crazy intense time. You’ve got your whole year on the line,” he says. “We’re always very worried about the quality, but once we know it’s there, it’s a lot of fun.” ■