THE EARLY DAYS
The hop industry revisits ideas from the past over time and travels in a very cyclical pattern. As technology and understanding of hop growing evolves over time, some ideas become more feasible than they once were while others are discarded certain to be revisited by a subsequent generation. Low trellis is one such idea.
Several countries lay claim to the invention of the concept of low-trellis hop production. We may never know where the idea originated the first time. Hops have been grown on varying height trellis for centuries. From the early concept of growing up the side of the brew house to growing up a pole to the current trellis design there has been many adaptations for raising hops. Growing hops under low trellis is not new and it is not uncommon around the world. It has, for the past few decades, been a very small portion of total world acreage. Some of the most significant developments in low trellis during the 20th century came from England. Extensive experimentation of Low trellis began at Wye College in England in the 1970's under Ray Neeve. Ray had been in the USA, on a tour, and saw some of the early experimentation done at the Morford Ranch (Currently an ADHA co founder) and of course by Hop Union USA lead, at that time, by Johannis Raiser.
Several American growers tried to make it work, but using traditional varieties and the growing practices of the time it was not widely accepted and never really caught on. Some varieties showed great potential, but there was not enough interest by American growers at the time for the widespread adoption of the practice by the industry. After a few years, all but a handful of growers lost interest, one of which however was the company that would become Johannis Raiser.
The impetus for producing hops under low trellis has always been the search for lower production costs without compromising quality. This motivation is stronger than ever today. British growers believed they could respond more appropriate to market conditions if they had a trellis system that could be installed, maintained and removed with less expense. By 1981, there were five or six potential dwarf hop varieties in England from the work done in the 1970's. In 1983, Peter Darby continued the research in this area. He released the first dwarf hop for commercial production in the mid 1990's.
Under Johannis Raiser's influence, a serious problem with low trellis hop production, how to pick the hops, was solved. Development of a hop combine that could move through the field to pick the hops, was invented and proved successful. It was a revolutionary concept at the time and remains so to this day.
Prior to the development of the hop combine some fields were even picked by hand, something that had not been done since the early 1950's. Using traditional industry picking machines and methods was simply not possible. Picking the hops represented a major barrier to the successful production of dwarf and low trellis hops. Once this challenge was overcome it appeared that the future of low-trellis hops was secure.
A DORMANT PERIOD
Low trellis hop production under Johannis Raiser gradually fell out of favor due to the introduction of super alpha varieties and the ease with which they could produce large quantities of alpha acid at a relatively low cost. Compared with the Nugget and Galena varieties, the leading producers of alpha during the 1980's, the new super alpha variety hops effectively reduced the cost of production of a pound of hops under standard trellis despite inefficiencies that existed. The super alpha hop variety could not be grown on low trellis because of the vigorous growth of the varieties. The growth exceeded the capacity of the low-trellis system under the management practices of the time except during the first and second years of production and for this reason Johannis Raiser decided to pursue other projects. Nevertheless, they maintained some low-trellis hop yards even past the turn of the century, as the idea was not flawed. It appears that the industry, however, was moving in a different direction.
The idea of low trellis hop production remained alive but commercial production ceased after the turn of the century. Equipment sat idle in the United States for several years until a handful of growers decided it was time to revisit the issue with modern technology and a fresh perspective. United as the American Dwarf Hop Association, these growers have developed new varieties, special cultural practices and harvesting techniques specifically for low trellis performance. Using today's technology, understanding of the hop plant, and varieties low trellis hop production is feasible. Over five hundred acres of low-trellis exist in the U.S. today. On that trellis are traditional varieties, new cultivars and specially bred dwarf hops.