Come October in the evergreen Pacific Northwest, fat salmon and hard-charging oceanic rainbow trout known as steelhead leap up tumbling rivers into the mountain creeks where they were born. Unfortunately, the numbers of these fish today are a mere fraction of what they used to be.
Hyrdroelectric and irrigation dams built all over the Pacific Northwest in the 20th century decimated salmon populations. Today, efforts to stabilize and restore those populations focus on leaving more water in streams for the fish—and keeping that water clean. Because agriculture is the number one industrial use of water in the West, growing the ingredients used in making wines, beers, and spirits can take a toll on salmon.
With those soaring fish on her mind, Robin Johnson of Deschutes Brewery in Bend, Oregon, decided to unveil a special 10-barrel batch of lightly malted beer with a wallop of juicy hop flavor this fall. For the special Centennial hops she needed, she contacted a local farmer named Gayle Goschie, who takes special steps to make sure her crop is as harmless as possible for fish.
“What better way to help raise awareness for a great cause,” says Johnson, “than by delivering an incredibly tasty beer [made] with ingredients that are grown in a responsible and thoughtful manner?”
Efforts to Protect Salmon
A growing number of Pacific Northwest brewers, winemakers, and distillers are choosing to get their ingredients from farms and vineyards that employ agricultural practices intended to help sustain and boost populations of salmon and steelhead. Additional steps that farmers and some producers are taking to protect these fish—and their local habitats—include planting trees along stream banks for shade to keep the water cool, growing cover crops to keep soil on farms from eroding into streams, and refraining from using harmful pesticides.
One way in which alcohol beverage producers are able to source salmon-safe ingredients is by seeking out certified vendors. The nonprofit organization Salmon-Safe, founded in the late 1990s by Dan Kent, evaluates farms and other agricultural operations and certifies those that have worked to maximize the health and abundance of their water as being Salmon-Safe. Products made with certified ingredients are labeled as such with the organization’s Salmon-Safe logo. Several producers of beverages made with Salmon-Safe ingredients also promote the certification in their marketing materials.
Kent explains that the appearance of the logo on products was confusing at first. Some amateur sommeliers thought it meant that the wine inside the bottle paired well with the fish. Over time, though, consumer awareness has spread, and the ecological value of the Salmon-Safe branding has become well known. It has also struck a chord with a growing market of consumers who are making environmentally conscious purchases.
“More than 400 vineyards have transitioned to [Salmon-Safe] certification practices, including a third of Oregon’s vineyard acreage,” says Kent. “That makes a powerful difference in local salmon watersheds, as winegrowers restore wildlife habitat, reduce runoff, and find natural ways to control weeds and pests.”
Inspired by craft breweries like Deschutes and New Belgium, Salmon-Safe is now expanding its reach to include farmers growing hops, grains, and malts in the Columbia River watershed, an area the size of France. Approximately 36 percent of all acres designated for hop farming in Washington’s Yakima Valley—like 36 percent of all acres dedicated to hop farming in all of Oregon—have been certified Salmon-Safe, says Kent.
He explains that it can cost as little as around $100 to certify a small organic vineyard. For a larger, more complex hop-farming operation, the certification could cost $1,000 or more. All certifications are made by outside, third-party inspectors.
Kent points out that three breweries—Hopworks Urban Brewery in Portland, Hopworks Vancouver and Redhook Ale, and Remedy in Seattle—have themselves been certified Salmon-Safe for taking measures to reduce their water use and manage their storm water.
In Oregon, Willamette Valley Vineyards (WVV), founded by Jim Bernau, was certified Salmon-Safe in 1997. Across 310 acres of vineyards, WVV has worked to enhance the biodiversity of plant and animal life and protect natural wetlands; instead of poisoning pests with chemicals, WVV uses owls and kestrels (a type of falcon) to hunt them.
“As native Oregonians, our mission is to be good stewards of the land,” says WVV winery director Christine Collier. “We know that water runoff plays a vital role in managing soil health, which also creates longevity of the vineyard land.”
In Washington’s Walla Walla Valley, Rick Small, owner of Woodward Canyon, turned 41 acres of his family’s dryland wheat farm into a Salmon-Safe vineyard for Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay.
“I’m certain that our wines have improved as a result of our Salmon-Safe commitment,” he says. “We see less erosion taking place [and we’re] retaining, or improving, soil organic matter.”
At Copperworks Distilling Company in Seattle, cofounder and president Jason Parker began buying Salmon-Safe ingredients from regional farmers as part of his greater ambition to be more ecologically responsible. Like farmers, producers can also take steps to make their beverages safer for salmon by using less water and making sure wastewater is as clean as possible.
“Our ultimate goal is to produce our spirits using less than half the water generally required in the production of distilled spirits, from farm to bottle,” he says. “Northwest salmon habitat will benefit.”
Creating a Better Future for Fish
To some, labeling any western agriculture Salmon-Safe constitutes an oxymoron. In California, for example, 90 percent of the water that once gushed through rivers for salmon and other fish has been impounded by dams and sprayed onto farms, as detailed in Marc Reisner’s seminal book “Cadillac Desert,” about the environmental and economic calamity of 20th-century dam building in the American West. Ninety percent of the wild salmon that once lived in the mighty Columbia River system were also killed as a result of the dams, including Grand Coulee, that were built to provide water to homesteader farms and ranches, Reisner writes. The salmon slaughter in the Pacific Northwest is better known only because it is more recent. In the Connecticut River basin, which once boasted the largest run of wild Atlantic salmon in North America, agricultural water extraction and pollution extirpated salmon by the War of 1812, according to biologists and historians.
With this history in mind, Phil Neumann of Walla Walla founded a sourcing company in 2014 called Mainstem Malts to connect brewers and distillers with environmentally and socially sustainable malt suppliers.
“Ultimately,” he says, “beer and spirits drinkers should realize that the bulk of the water usage in this western agricultural system is happening on farms—most of the malts and high-quality grains are coming from irrigated farms—so if you want to make a positive impact on the environment through consuming, look to the farmers. There are whole economies that function on irrigated agriculture. The question is, How do we work within those constraints to do better?”
An answer, he and the others have decided, is for beverage connoisseurs to abide by that figurative cliché: Drink like a fish. But also, now, they should think a little bit like one, too.
Nate Schweber is a freelance journalist from Missoula, Montana, now living in Brooklyn, New York. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Al Jazeera America, Trout Magazine, and All About Beer Magazine. In 2011 he coauthored the book Indiana Breweries with John Holl.