Early September brings with it the start of school, the last vacation to the cabin, or even a blue ribbon at the Minnesota State Fair.
For hop growers, this time of year means a hectic, labor-intensive, but potentially glorious payoff: harvest.
From mid-August through mid-September, hop growers from across Minnesota’s burgeoning hop industry are gathering cascade, Sorachi Ace, centennial, and other hop varieties fresh from the bine and sending them off to local breweries to be used for the most highly anticipated style of the season: wet-hopped IPAs.
While Minnesota’s hops production pales in comparison to that of Washington state—and neighbors Wisconsin and Michigan—2015 may prove to be a landmark year for local growers, as new investment and innovation could inject serious growth into the industry.
“Minnesota is a great place to grow hops because there are a lot of breweries here,” says Charlie Rohwer, a plant biologist and hops researcher at the University of Minnesota’s Southern Research and Outreach Center.
At face value, that statement may seem glaringly obvious. But Rohwer is referring to the demand Minnesota’s breweries have for local hops. “Local breweries want local hops. And that’s not a gimmick,” says Annette Vetse, co-owner of Gerhard Hops in Pine City, Minnesota. “Not only do they want to support local businesses, but they also want fresher product. Why would you want hops that have been packed and frozen for three years when you can get some grown this year in your own state?”
The problem is that the supply of hops in Minnesota nowhere meets the demand of local breweries. Hopyard acreage only grew by five acres from 2014 to 2015, bringing the grand total of commercial hops acreage in the state to 25, according to this year’s Hop Growers of America survey. In addition, most of the hopyards in Minnesota are smaller than five acres, rendering crop yields too small to regularly supply any one brewery.
“Minnesota is a top brewery destination. Rahr Malting is here, Brewers Supply Group is here, but what’s holding back the hops industry is investment,” Rohwer says. “You need a big group or somebody crazy enough to take the risk and invest in processing.”
Minnesota’s small hopyards only produce enough for a brewery to use as a wet hop seasonal beer once a year, while the larger hopyards can’t afford the expensive equipment like pelletizers and threshers to maximize production efficiency and eventually increase their hopyard acreage.
Tools of the trade
The rule of thumb tends to be that any hopyard larger than an acre is too difficult to harvest by hand, even when there’s an army of friends and family helping out. One bine can take 45 minutes to handpick, and at about 1,400 plants per acre in a hopyard, there are not enough hours in a day to handpick all the cones in the short window for harvest. But among Minnesota’s dozen or so hopyards, there are only three industrial hops threshers.
John Brach, owner of Stone Hill Farm near Stillwater and the president of the Minnesota Hop Growers Association, owns one of the three threshers. Despite some downy mildew taking out a portion of his third-year bines, Brach is looking forward to a great harvest this year. “My cascades are looking fantastic. They are totally loaded,” he says.
Also loaded is Brach’s schedule. He will harvest the crop from four other hopyards in addition to his own.
Brach describes his thresher as mid-sized, significantly smaller than the 400-bines-per-hour threshers used by Yakima Valley hopyards in Washington. The smaller size combined with the amount of time it takes to travel between hopyards and clean out the thresher between each use makes sharing threshing equipment a costly process.
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