Partners in Hops: A Q&A with Bruce Wolf from Willamette Valley Hops
We recently sat down with Bruce Wolf, Willamette Valley Hops' founder and CEO, to talk about hops, craft brewing—and being part of a revolution in brewing.
Willamette Valley Hops (WVH) is an Oregon-based, family-owned premium hop distributor specializing in the craft industry. Bruce Wolf, the company’s founder and CEO, leads a passionate sales team and production staff to provide over 50 different domestic and foreign hop varieties to brewers worldwide. The partnership between Barth-Haas Group and WVH provides an effective and efficient means to give small brewers access to the best hops in the world. We recently sat down with Bruce to talk about hops, craft brewing—and being part of a revolution in brewing.
Q: Can you tell us a little bit about Willamette Valley Hops, how you got started?
Bruce Wolf: We started in late 2008 to supply hop rhizomes to home brewers. Before that, I was on the farming side of the business—I’m actually a fifth-generation hop grower—and, as I was delivering rhizomes for my grandfather, I realized that I knew a lot of farmers and I could get a whole lot of rhizomes myself. So that’s how it started. After our first year, that quickly turned into supplying breweries to meet their pellet needs. Today, we have nine full-time employees and two outside sales reps.
Q: The craft industry, obviously, has really taken off the past 20 years, and WVH has had a front-row seat. How have things changed?
Bruce: I think there were just over a thousand breweries when we started this. Now we’re at 4,600, or a little over that. I believe craft in general has only gotten better. There’s so much to choose from. Even though there are a lot of the same types of beers being made across the United States, they’re all being made in different ways, with different ingredients and different hops—it’s really created a fantasyland of beer to choose from. And what’s interesting is what we see in the relationships these breweries have with each other. I don’t think a lot of the craft is fighting for market share. It’s more as if they’re all working together to gain market share as an industry, not individually.
Q: What do you love most working with craft brewers?
Bruce: It has to be the relationships—the closeness of the relationship that we get to build with brewers. We’re very passionate about the product. In most other businesses, I don’t think you get to share that kind of passion with your customers, and brewers actually get to share their passion for beer with us. So we’re creating very close relationships with people who are just like us, and we’re just sharing two things we both really love.
At WVH, we really do consider ourselves a partner when we talk to these brewers, because we feel like we’re a very important part of what they’re doing. Especially with all the new hop varieties, helping them see what’s available and possible, and getting immediate feedback from them. It’s fun stuff.
Q: How did you begin working with Haas?
Bruce: The relationship actually goes back to my father, and his father and all those generations of my family’s business. This part of the family business grows hops and John I. Haas, Inc. was who my family always worked with to market their hops. . We were exclusive with Haas on the growing side so it was natural for us to extend the partnership and trust to the Willamette Valley Hops distribution business.
When I first started doing business, I got to know Pete Mahony really well. People really loved the quality of the Haas hops, and Haas really valued getting constant feedback from our customers. We built a very close relationship over the years, and now we source Barth-Haas hops exclusively. Today, we work with Haas by focusing on the needs of smaller brewers in providing quality Haas hops. Some breweries will eventually become bigger than we are designed to handle and that is when we refer our customers back to John I. Haas for direct servicing.
Q: So, what are people buying a lot of—what are they interested in?
Bruce: Everything we see from Australia right now stands out in my mind: Galaxy™, Ella™, Vic Secret™. Those are very, very popular hops for the IPAs that we’re making in the U.S. And right along with them is Citra® and Centennial™ and the new varieties. Loral™ (which was HBC 291) is going be a very good variety for this industry.
One could argue about this a little bit, but I think the consumers are drawn to these new hops. The way these hops are advertised and the flavor profiles that they have, it’s not just the brewers who are excited about them. The people drinking the beer now are excited about hops, where they might not have been ten years ago.
Q: When it comes to innovation, I used to have this picture of the craft brewer, in my mind, as purists but they’re really pushing the boundaries…
Bruce: I believe craft brewers have very open minds and trust us as a supplier, which plays a big part in trying new hops and advanced products. Especially as they bring production to scale—to make sure they’re producing a consistent beer every time. That’s one thing that’s really neat about Haas: they develop these products that can extend all that stuff and even help with things like head retention and foam…the kind of products small brewers probably haven’t had access to before they met us. Craft brewers are always willing to try something new, like using the hops later in the process rather than in the boil. And I think that openness has really been part of their success.
For more information on Bruce and Willamette Valley Hops, visit www.willamettevalleyhops.com.