Drink Globally, Hop Locally: Boutique American Hop Farms are a Growing Inspiration to Brewers
Julie Diers never dreamed of becoming a hop farmer. She was content being a schoolteacher in the mountain community of Palisade, in Western Colorado, where she’d recently moved onto a small plot of land.
“I’d found this beautiful Norman Rockwell farm with a house, but I had no intention of growing anything,” she explains. “Then my pension plan started going downhill, and a neighbor suggested that I cultivate hops. He said, ‘You should see how high they’re trading on the stock market.’ And I said, What the hell is a hop?’”
Diers did some research and discovered that hops are the female flower clusters of a perennial climbing plant, Humulus lupulus. Hop cones—fresh, dried, or, most often, in pelletized form—are used in the production of beer for their bittering quality, unique flavoring, and aromatic properties.
An established hop field yields anywhere from 1,500 to 2,000 pounds of dried hops per acre, which can then sell for $10 to $15 a pound. As lucrative as that sounds, however, hops are an expensive crop to establish. It costs about $25,000 an acre to install irrigation and trellising and to buy the hop rhizomes, not to mention the backbreaking labor required to get them up and growing.
Diers crunched the numbers, conducted soil samples, recruited some friends, and founded Hippie Chicks Organic Hops in the spring of 2009. Today Diers is one of a growing number of boutique hop farmers who are filling a small but successful niche in America’s booming craft-beer industry. The Brewers Association reports that nationally there were 1,927 breweries operating for some or all of 2011 (the highest total since the late 1800s, when the lack of refrigeration or mass production meant that most areas had at least one regional brewery) and that the majority of Americans now live within ten miles of a craft brewer. As the number and geographic distribution of craft breweries and brewpubs continues to increase, so too does the demand for highquality ingredients. More brewers are also looking to source raw goods that reflect their region and support local agriculture.
Massive hop-growing operations in the Pacific Northwest, where total hop production encompasses tens of thousands of acres, still provide the bulk of Americangrown hops. In contrast, boutique producers such as Diers usually farm on no more than 15 acres or so and primarily support small-batch, farm-to-glass offerings from regional craft breweries. These small hop farms are appearing across the country, especially in Colorado and in traditional hop-growing areas such as upper state New York, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Vermont. Some breweries, including Sierra Nevada in Chico, California; Oskar Blues in Longmont, Colorado; and Cooperstown Brewing in Milford, New York, have even planted their own hop yards.
Sierra Nevada, for example, recently released Estate Brewers Harvest Ale, a limited-edition beer brewed with homegrown hops, grains, and even water from its property. “Inspired by the renowned winemaking region of its Napa and Sonoma neighbors, Sierra Nevada is the first brewery to develop its own terroir,” says the brewery’s description of Harvest Ale. “This beer is brewed with ingredients that reflect the flavors of the environment and nature’s seasonal rhythms.”
An Investment in Good Taste
The concept of terroir is prevalent in the wine industry but is just starting to take hold with regard to hops and beer making. “Hops are the main ingredient that everybody is keyed in on right now, and the idea of their harvest is instrumental to creating a new way to celebrate beer,” explains Mark Newman, beverage director for Old Chicago Restaurants. Old Chicago recently worked with Colorado-based Tommyknocker Brewery to develop Hop Nouveau, a wethopped IPA brewed with freshly picked hops from the Hippie Chicks’ farm. “When you talk about wines from Napa Valley nowadays, people talk about Howell Mountain and the other subregions found there, or Sonoma’s Dry Creek subregion to the north. It’s going to be exciting when brewers can say that they got their hop harvest out of Yakima, Washington, or the Western Slope of Colorado, and those regions are known for producing the best of a certain variety of hop.”
The quality and distinct flavor profiles of hops are crucial to craft brewers, who tend to use more hops in their beers than larger domestic breweries.
“Some of our beers have more than five pounds of hops per barrel,” says Brendan McGivney, director of production at Odell Brewing Company in Fort Collins, Colorado. “Most of our hops are from Washington and Oregon, but we’re a regional brewery, and it’s important for us as a company to understand who’s producing our raw materials and to have a relationship with them.”
McGivney and his team have visited Hippie Chicks’ farm for the past two years to help with the harvest, a task that involves many friends and neighbors, camping out in the hop field, barbecue picnics, music, and sometimes a float down the nearby Colorado River. Last year Odell incorporated Hippie Chicks’ hops in its Mountain Standard Time, a seasonal double-black IPA brewed with regional ingredients. “We’re committed to supporting local farmers and to sourcing local ingredients for the beer,” says McGivney. “And it’s really a powerful connection to get the brewers and production folks out there in the hop fields with the raw materials.
“The big issue [for small hop farmers] at this point is capital,” he continues. “Hop growers need investments in infrastructure like picking machines, drying rooms, and pelletizers to take the next step.”
Dr. Ron Godin, an agronomist and research scientist in soil fertility and crops works closely with Diers and other hop farmers and last year founded the Colorado Hop Growers Association. He agrees that capital investments and improved infrastructure are critical to the future of this burgeoning cottage industry but says the priority right now is on helping farmers establish a steady production schedule and increasing yields. “Quality is basically what we’re selling...This is one of the few crops family farms can grow on a small scale and be able to make a living.” Indeed, it’s enough to make Diers and other small producers hop to it.
By Tom Wilmes