Estate-Grown Hops & a New Estate
By Liz Scholz
Photo by Mark Neuzil, MinnPost
Brewing and farms go together like beers and bikes, like summer and beer fests, like winter and beer fests. Many breweries are supporting local farms with their spent grain, feeding it to cattle, sometimes in exchange for tasty, tasty meat, but no one is doing it quite like Brau Brothers in Lucan, Minnesota. They not only grow their own hops (eleven varieties!), but also two-row barley on their brewery-farm-hybrid.
While a New Belgium or Left Hand has made it popular to vertically integrate and be self-sustaining, Brau Brothers farms hops and barley not because it’s trendy, but because, well, they live on a farm. When production was as large as their small brewery could manage, they began to experiment with other things—things that make their knowledge and expertise of the beer business even better, things like farming. Dustin Brau, the owner and head brewer, said the farming side-projects have been “a lot of fun,” despite the fact they haven’t seen a lot of financial return on investment.
They’re doing more than giving away truckloads of pungent spent grains—they’re putting even more love into their beers.
Homebrewers have experimented with things like growing their own hops before, but never much more than a trellis or two—they grow vigorously and, for the five-gallon batch scale, end up yielding too many fresh hops to realistically use. Some have tried growing their own barley, too, but with low yields and the need to malt the grains after harvesting, it can be a futile endeavor. That is what’s exciting about Brau Brothers taking the time and effort to farm these ingredients, and more importantly, use them in beers we know and love. They’re doing more than giving away truckloads of pungent spent grains—they’re putting even more love into their beers.
Even with the largest hop yard in the Upper Midwest, almost all of Brau Brothers’ supply goes into One Hundred Yard Dash, their seasonal fresh hop ale, since it takes a lot more fresh hops to get the same hop-level as using the pelletized version. They aren’t the first to brew a fresh hop beer, but fresh hops need to be, well, fresh, so you either have to harvest them yourself or fly them in, which can get expensive. In the end, growing your own makes financial sense and further encourages those “drink local” types to feel even better about their craft beer decisions.
Even with the largest hop yard in the Upper Midwest, almost all of Brau Brothers’ supply goes into One Hundred Yard Dash, their seasonal fresh hop ale
Other local breweries are using locally sourced fresh hops, too—in September, Lift Bridge has a hop harvest festival called Pickin’ and Grinnin,’ where you help them pick the hops (brought in on vines from Hippity Hops Farm in Forest Lake) for their Harvestör Fresh Hop Ale, while drinking beer and listening to blue grass music. There’s also Olvalde Farm and Brewing Company in Rollingstone, Minnesota, which focuses on traditional brewing methods, like growing their own ingredients right then and there, and only brewing with what is in season. Why do you think it’s called Oktoberfest? Oktoberfest-style beers are made from the grains that are available during that specific season and are served at their eponymous harvest festival.
Recently things have changed for Brau Brothers. With goals of expanding and meeting the demand in and around the Midwest, they are planning on moving to a bigger and better facility (the packaging area of which is 1.5 times the size of the entire old facility) only 20 minutes away in Marshall, Minnesota. But what about their farm, you ask? It will stay up and running, at least for now. Two years ago Brau Brothers planted a small satellite hop yard near Marshall to help supplement their current hop yard, which they will rely on more heavily to hop-up the One Hundred Yard Dash along with other new special projects. Once the satellite farm is up and running, Brau said they hope to keep the old farm as a site of continued experimentation and joy—maybe even scale it up a bit.
The barley fields will stay at least for this year and then after that who knows—with the flux involved in opening a new facility (this April), some things inevitably go by the wayside; however, as of today Brau Brothers doesn’t have plans to sell the farm.
They will still make their beer with the same love and estate-grown hops. The hops will still be there, you just won’t see them.
One thing is for sure, the hop yard and barley fields that surround Brau Brothers right now are truly unique. The employees and visitors like the current access to the hops and ability to just walk out of their front door, beer in hand to “stop and smell the hops”—a stress-reducing experience that will no longer be available to them on a day-to-day basis in their new location. But that’s okay because, like their logo which no longer reads “Lucan, Population: 220,” but instead “Marshall, Established 2006,” they are willing to make adjustments in the trade-off for a higher-output facility.
After the move, they will still make their beer with the same love and estate-grown hops. The hops will still be there, you just won’t see them. Perhaps one day the farm that began as an experiment may be forgotten as an experiment, but the ethos will always be there. For now, while the Brau family stresses over the game-changing move they are about to make and all the little details (like adding a taproom), they’ll gaze out the window over their fields of hops and dream of the beers to come.