Let’s face it: a hoppy beer is a happy beer. Homebrewers and commercial brewers alike know the range of nuances using “just the right hop” can add, whether bold or subtle, or in aroma or flavor. That’s why the recent world-wide hop shortage sent shock waves through the beer industry as a whole. From brewers, to sellers, to drinkers, nearly everyone felt the impact of a more meager variety selection and higher costs.
However, the sudden shortage also served as an opportunity for one industrious segment of the population: small-scale farmers. This group quickly stepped up to the plate, intent on filling the void of the coveted Humulus lupus from larger-scale farming operations. “A few years ago, I started thinking of things to do with my farmland because my regular income began to dry up,” explains Glen Fuller of Colorado Organic Hops in Paonia, Colorado. “I did a lot of research into what would be a good cash crop. This was right at the beginning of the hop shortage, and it just kept coming up, so that’s how hops came into the picture. Everything pointed to hops.”
While the ability to produce a crop garnering above-average prices certainly captured the interest of small-scale farmers, money was not the only factor that came into play for many of them, including James Altwies, Director/Horticulturist of Gorst Valley Hops in Mazomanie, Wisconsin. “Most folks think that it was simply the price of hops that attracted us to start producing and processing in Wisconsin, but that is not entirely true. Granted, the price spike and shortage of hops did get our attention but not for the potential revenue — rather because the current production and distribution systems were not benefiting our local brewers. In the Upper Midwest, especially Wisconsin, brewing is a major revenue generator and livelihood of hundreds of people, both of which were upset during the recent shortage,” Altwies explains. His dedication to helping the local economy has proven successful. “In general we’re adding approximately 15 acres per year in conjunction with independent farmers through our Charter Grower Program. The farmer receives all the technical service he or she wants or needs in areas like plantation design and operations and management practices, as well as state-of-the-art processing/analysis at our facility. Once the hops are sold to the brewer both the grower and Gorst Valley Hops gets paid, with the vast majority of the gross profits returning to the farmer. The grower is happy, the brewer is happy and I’m happy.”
Yet other growers were drawn to hops through their rich and colorful history. “Our hop growing experience began with an interest in local history,” recounts Larry Fisher, owner of Foothill Hops in Munnsville, New York along with Kate Fisher. “In the 1880s, the central New York area including Madison County where we live, produced 21 million pounds of hops — 80% of the nation’s hop supply at that time. Our landscape is still dotted with the remnants of 19th century hop houses where the hops were dried and prepared for shipment via rail and barge. In the year 2000, we went to the Madison County Hop Fest to learn more about our area’s hop heritage and we were hooked!”
“As we talked with others at the Hop Fest, the question arose, why don’t they grow hops in New York now?” The Fishers found that hops found their demise in New York because of cheaper production in the Northwest, a major mold epidemic and Prohibition. “After the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, hop prices soared, but efforts to revive the industry in New York state failed.” That is, until now. “More than 50 years later, a small group of hop enthusiasts at the 2000 Madison County Hop Fest joined to form the Northeast Hop Alliance (NeHA) to research the feasibility of reintroducing hops in New York and to preserve and promote the hop growing heritage of the region through architectural preservation and agri-tourism. We were part of that group.”
Just for Homebrewers
Different small-scale farms fill different niches, such as growing organic hops or supplying commercial craft breweries with a locally-grown product, but one couple began growing hops just for homebrewers. Matt and Anne Whyte, owners of Vermont Homebrew Supply, planted a 1⁄2-acre hop yard to supply their shop with whole hops.
“We grow about a dozen varieties,” says Matt Whyte. These include English varieties, such as Goldings and Fuggles, and German varieties, such as Tettnang and Hallertau, in addition to the American varieties including Cascade and Chinook. This year they produced about 35 lbs. (16 kg) of organic hops (dry weight) from a mixture of 1-year-old and 2-year-old vines. Given the small overall yield, the hops were not sent out for alpha acid analysis; homebrewers had to use the typical alpha acid range for each variety when formulating their recipes. To dry the hops, Matt built his own oast. This hop oven is basically a box that holds several window screens, on which the hop cones are spread. Hot air from a 1,500-W space heater flows up through screens and dries the hops.
The surge in small-scale hop farms has afforded the average homebrewer access to an assortment of services and products not typically offered by larger-scale operations. Fuller offers a Brew Class and Hop School at his farm where students have hands-on learning experiences amidst the towering rows of hop bines. Better yet, because of the personalized nature of these farms, students can take advantage of added benefits — ideas hatched during class can actually come to fruition. “Eight or ten of the students who took the brew school are coming up to help harvest. After all the work’s done we’ll probably have a sip or two of beer and that’s that,” Fuller explains. “It ought to be pretty fun, kind of like the old hop-picking camps they had back in the 1800s.”
And for the homebrewer who loves to experiment with hops, but could use a little assistance in variety selection or brewing technique, help is just a phone call or email away. Places like Gorst Valley Hops offer inexpensive consulting services to homebrewers and other farmers. Foothill Hops maintains a blog all about hops. Additionally, most allow people to visit and tour the hop farms, learning all-things-hops along the way. “We have a constant stream of visitors and future growers. It’s part of the dynamics of having a small farm,” Fuller says. The homebrewer can gain a wealth of knowledge about hops through these types of resources.
Brewers can also find fresh hops in places once reserved primarily for the average tomato or pepper. Matt Hendry at Anjali Farms in Vermont sold 20 potted Willamette hop rhizomes for $15 each last year at a local farmer’s market. In addition, many small hop farms offer fresh hops and rhizomes online, including Gorst Valley Hops in Mazomanie, Wisconsin and Foothill Hops in Munnsville, New York among many others.
Farmers Brew, Too
If a brewer’s fantasy involves plucking a hop cone from a thick row of lush, perfectly developed bines, then these small-scale farmers are “living the dream.” What they have learned can benefit even the most novice of homebrewers.
“Hop varieties add distinct attributes to beer: bitterness, flavor, aroma, head retention, storage life. We have our hops tested by a brewing and vinification laboratory to determine the alpha and beta acid content and use that information to select the variety, amount, and schedule for adding hops to our brew kettle to achieve the desired bitterness and aroma profile,” Fisher says. “Start with a proven recipe and then experiment. Take notes! Producing great beer is both a science and an art. Ultimately, it is the many distinct qualities of hops, grains, sugar, yeast, and even water, that come together to produce a specific beer style and taste.”
Fuller enjoys checking out the aromas of his fresh hops. “You open the Cascades up and they smell citrusy, vanilla-y, and maybe a little nutty. The Chinooks smell kind of grapefruity, the Magnums smell really strong, maybe with even a touch of sulphur and a touch of vanilla. They’ve all got a unique odor to them, and all the cones on the different varieties have a different shape. I pick them just to open them up, smell them, and see how they are coming along.”
Those who work with Fuller like his habit of testing out the aromas as well. “They say hops have great calming properties. Since I started sniffing cones, I stopped yelling at my employees when they goofed up. Last year when it happened they all thought something was wrong with me!” he jokes.
Experimenting can enable brewers to craft beers with just the right aroma or flavor, but achieving the perfect balance always requires the use of just the right ingredients. “When selecting hops — on-line, at homebrew shops, wherever —always try to select the freshest hops available,” advises Altwies. “Hops will retain more of the aroma and essential oils if they have not been repackaged and have been stored in the proper environmentally controlled conditions. Hops spoil easily and proper handling and storage is very important.”
Using the freshest hops can add layers of complexity to a brew. “The biggest contribution that locally grown ultra high quality (UHQ) hops can impart to beer is the aroma,” Altwies explains. “The trend in large scale production is toward very high alpha varieties for big bitterness and extraction. However many of the craft and artisan brewers are looking for more from their hops than just bittering. Low temperature processing preserves these volatile compounds. The oil components play a huge part in the beer drinking experience and are under-appreciated in my opinion. Some hops, like Sterling and Saaz, have very unique earthy and spicy oil profiles that can be lost when overpowered by the citrus/grassy nose of big bittering hops.”
The fact that some of these farmers also brew their own beer has resulted in a few perks for other homebrewers as well. “We began homebrewing about 12 years ago, before we started our hops enterprise. As other local homebrewers started to buy our hops, they began asking if we had malt, yeast and that type of thing. To serve their needs, we opened a small homebrewing shop in 2007. That business is growing steadily and we are brewing more as a result of having all the necessary supplies at our fingertips. There is nothing like the satisfaction of using your own leaf hops in a brew kettle. We also like to use our hops in cooking and have created mustards, lemonade, salad dressings and herb mixes utilizing our hops,” said Larry Fisher of Foothill Hops.
The small farmers who opted to grow hops have generally seen their businesses expand. “The demand for organic hops is definitely increasing,” Fisher says.
Fuller’s hop production is also increasing. “I’ll probably produce somewhere around 7,000 lbs. (3,200 kg) of fresh hops this year, and 20,000 lbs. (9,100 kg) next year.” He notes that start-up costs are significant. “It costs between $10,000 and $12,000 per acre depending on what you’re putting in. It takes a lot of money to get started, and realistically you won’t see any return on your investment until the second year. The capital investment is enormous.”
He attributes his expected increase in output to the fact he’s been able to perfect his process. “This year, in growing I didn’t make the same mistakes as last year regarding nutrients and nitrogen levels. There’s a learning curve,” he says.
Fortunately for brewers and other beneficiaries of fine hops, people like Fuller readily make the commitment of both money and time to keep the hop harvests coming.
Kristin Grant is a frequent contributor to Brew You Own magazine.