Three men walk through even rows of trellises on the outskirts of Owatonna, Minnesota, noting how much fertilizer has affected the color of cascade hop leaves and how the glacier hops seem to grow wide. Amid inside jokes and ideas for their next homebrew, there’s a deep sense that these three men are on the verge of something important, something that will last.
The cascade and glacier hops are the product of Straight River Hops, owned and operated by Larry Tolle, his son Josh Tolle, and Larry’s son-in-law Chase Amundson. “In a place like this, with the river nearby, you can taste the soil in the hops. It’s our own version of terroir,” Josh Tolle says.
The farm is in outstate Minnesota on the prairie and is one of the many new hopyards that make up Minnesota’s young hops industry. “It’s such a new industry, and such a small group of people,” Larry says of Minnesota’s hop growers. “You get quite an interesting group of characters.”
Being a hop grower requires patience, hard work, determination, and more than a little risk-taking. But for Minnesota’s hop growers, the price is worth it for the sake of craft beer. “One common thread that I see among all our hop growers is that they love good beer,” says John Brach, president of the Minnesota Hop Growers Association (MHGA) and owner of Stone Hill Farm in Stillwater. “You have to be passionate about a product to be putting lots of work into it.”
Incubator of Industry
Minnesota is a prime location to put the passion for craft beer—and locally grown hops—into action. Hops require lots of sunlight and grow best between 35- to 50-degrees latitude—precisely the area on the globe where most of Minnesota falls. Minnesota also offers hops growers a great resource in the University of Minnesota; plant biologist Charlie Rohwer and plant pathologist Angela Orchinsky are leading the state in hops research.
With increased interest comes increased educational resources. When the MHGA was founded in 2013, there were 35 members. This year, membership ballooned to 200, including many hobbyists as well as commercial growers. The larger membership enabled the MHGA to bring in out-of-state researchers to present their ideas and findings. “We’re sharing a lot of information with each other,” Brach says. “We are a little competitive, but the demand is so much more than the supply [that] we’re helping each other succeed. It’s a good environment to be in.”
Despite the growing numbers, Minnesota’s hops industry is still in its infancy. Last year, Hop Growers of America surveyed 17 hop-growing states and found that Minnesota had only about 20 acres of hopyards, placing it in the bottom third in terms of statewide acreage. “No one in Minnesota is at the scale where hops are their primary source of income,” Brach says.
Nor is any hopyard currently at such a scale that it could supply a brewery’s hops year round. In Yakima Valley, Washington, where the lion’s share of hops are grown in the United States, there are already third and fourth generations of American hop growers. In Minnesota, on the other hand, hop growers hail from backgrounds as diverse as the varietals they grow.
Straight River Hops is a perfect example. Larry, described as a back-to-the-land ex-hippie by Josh, works IT for a Colorado company. Chase works for the payroll giant ADP, bringing a deft knowledge of sales and marketing to the family team. Josh spends most of his year in the classroom as a science and language arts teacher, and recently ran a Community Supported Agriculture program with his wife, Tai. “We started this hopyard out of curiosity and abject stupidity,” Larry said with a laugh.
But even though Minnesota hop growers have a long way to go to catch up to Washington, there is still enough product to meet a certain demand. Many Minnesota breweries that put out wet-hopped beers at summer’s end get their hops from local growers. To make its Harvestör Wet-Hopped IPA, Lift Bridge Brewing partnered with Hippity Hops Farm of Forest Lake. Lucid Brewing called upon Gerhard Farm in Pine City for its fresh-hopped version of Foto. And Mankato Brewery paired up with Minnesota Hops Company of Lake Crystal for HopKato. As for Straight River Hops, Chase says a Minnesota brewery has already signed a contract for the bulk of Straight River Hops’ cascade harvest.
To set up their hopyard for the 2015 growing season, Larry, Josh, and Chase jerry-built a wooden platform onto the dump bucket of their tractor. Watching as Chase stood on the precarious platform high above the ground to string up this season’s hops, the team figured there had to be a better way.
But equipment availability is a major problem for hop growers in Minnesota. Unlike neighboring Wisconsin, Minnesota has no infrastructure in place for the industry. Wisconsin has four to six times the hops acreage Minnesota does, as well as a hops co-op and the machinery to support growers. Lacking that kind of organization, Brach says he isn’t sure how Minnesota’s industry can get to the next level.
Currently, there are only three hops harvesting machines in the state. Brach owns one of them. Hops harvesters can run up to $50,000; even the economy models go for around $20,000. That means places like the one-acre Straight River Hops will have to stick with their current model: hand-picking.
In addition to its need for more harvesting machines, Minnesota also lacks a hops pelletizer—another $50,000 investment. As it stands today, if hop growers here want to offer their customers hops in pellets, they have to bring their crop to the Wisconsin pelletizer. Brach estimated that in order for Minnesota to be able to afford a co-op and new equipment the local hops acreage would have to double in size.
Even if Minnesota hop growers are constrained in some ways, new possibilities are on the horizon. Local researchers are creating a hop that grows best in Minnesota, not the Cascade Mountains or the Rhineland. While still several years away, the possibility feeds the dreams of local hop growers like Larry, Josh, and Chase.
As more breweries pop up, the men behind Straight River Hops envision a system not unlike that of pre-Prohibition brewing: each town with a brewery and a local hopyard, the two collaborating as a community. “We can build this legacy and a history together,” Josh said.