The Friday before Memorial Day, folks are often packing up the car to head to the cabin, sneaking off from work early or firing up the grill.
Not Eric Sannerud and Benjamin Boo. They were in a field, in the cold rain, training tendrils of hop bines up strings of twine 20 feet in the air.
Despite wet socks and chapped hands, the two friends and founders of Mighty Axe Hops wouldn’t want to do anything else. “This is the dream,” Sannerud says. “We didn’t expect to be doing this full-time so soon. It’s so good. We feel like we have something special.”
And Mighty Axe is special. At an event today at Fair State Co-op, Mighty Axe announced that they’ll be expanding to a new 80-acre facility about 20 minutes north of St. Cloud, Minnesota, in Gilmanton Township. That acreage will make Mighty Axe bigger than all the hopyards in Minnesota combined, and more than 20 times larger than Mighty Axe’s current 3.5-acre operation in Ham Lake.
At the heart of the property will be a 13,000-square-foot building to hold state-of-the-art threshing, processing, and packaging equipment. Sannerud and Boo intend to break ground on 40 acres of the property this year, and the second 40 acres in 2017, with the first production season coming in 2017 as well. Mighty Axe will grow the traditional hop varietals like Cascade, Centennial, and Crystal, as well as lesser-known and experimental strains like Serbian Vodjvina.
The whole property Sannerud and Boo acquired for their new hopyard is actually 120 acres, so Mighty Axe has lots of room to grow in the future. “Most of the hops grown in this state are on one- to 10-acre operations,” Boo says. “With a facility this big, we can advance the whole local industry.”
— Mighty Axe Hops (@MightyAxeHops) May 31, 2016
Even though Minnesota has a booming craft beer scene and a good climate for growing hops, the state lags behind other craft beer meccas in terms of hops production. As of 2015, estimates from the Minnesota Hops Growers Association put Minnesota’s total hop acreage at about 20 acres. (For comparison, Washington state boasts more than 27,000 total acres of hops, with the average hopyard at 450 acres. It’s no wonder that the Evergreen State is responsible for about 75 percent of commercial hop production in the United States.)
“Most people don’t realize that the hops in their beer are pretty much all from the six same growers,” Sannerud said. “We do believe in local supply. It only makes sense to us that local beers have local hops.”
Mighty Axe’s success has been built as much on cultivating relationships as the cultivation of hops. “Local,” “craft,” and “community” are a huge part of the mindset for Sannerud and Boo. The pair of University of Minnesota graduates embarked on their commercial hops growing venture four years ago. With only about 20 hops plants to their name, the two friends were able to convince brewer friends to buy just a few scant ounces of hops after their first growing season. That first vote of confidence from the brewing community helped push Sannerud and Boo to keep going, and keep growing. “We’re very grateful to the brewing community for that,” Sannerud says.
Since then, Mighty Axe has made sure to keep relationships with the brewing community and the public thriving by showing up and tabling at craft beer events throughout the Metro. The hoppy fruits of their labors have been used by popular Minnesota breweries like Fair State, Bad Weather, and Fulton.
Sannerud and Boo have also been leaders in the budding hops-growing community. Last fall, the pair published a six-page “Grower’s Guide” with handy tips and tricks for starting and maintaining a hopyard. By sharing their story, the Mighty Axe method has become a touchstone for Minnesota hops growers. “We’re getting calls and answering questions all the time,” Sannerud says, adding that he and Boo intend to publish an updated version of the guide this winter.
Even though the Mighty Axe team will be primarily operating out of their new 80-acre facility in the future, they plan to retain the original Ham Lake facility as a “show model” for others just starting in the hops growing community. There, folks will better envision how to scale smaller operations and interact with the staff—almost like how a large-scale brewery might have a showpiece taproom model, Sannerud and Boo say.
The new Mighty Axe hopyard will be both community-driven as well as sustainable. Sannerud and Boo have already joined Minnesota’s Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program, a new initiative from the state to help farmers implement water conservation practices on their land. For Mighty Axe, that means features like 100 feet of buffer zones along the creek that runs through the hopyard to minimize runoff.
The grounds and landscaping will be planted to benefit pollinators, while the main building will host an array of solar panels on the south-facing roof, something “all German hopyards do,” Boo says.
In addition, the Mighty Axe team intends to start composting—and do a lot of it. A single hop plant can grow to be 20 feet tall, and only the cones are kept for use. But all the leaves and bines still contain a lot of energy and nutrients, making them ideal for composting.
Sustainability is not just a buzzword for Sannerud and Boo. By respecting and enriching the land, they get a better product. “Hops are a fascinating plant,” Boo says. “How you approach the field shows up in the final product. We now have the production knowledge to really get the most out of this plant. But even at a large scale, there’s still a hands-on quality. By still being able to put our hands on the plants, we can really fine-tune to get the best flavors.”
Mighty Axe Hops will celebrate a groundbreaking ceremony at their new Gilmanton Township facility on June 16, with a party to cap off the festivities at Beaver Island Brewing Company in St. Cloud afterward.