The Next Phase In Local Craft Beer: Homegrown Hops

Hops mid-harvest // Photo courtesy Mighty Axe Hops

Hops mid-harvest // Photo courtesy Mighty Axe Hops

For the casual craft beer drinker in Minnesota, supporting local breweries usually means frequenting area taprooms and buying Minnesota-made beer at the liquor store. But with the increasing availability of locally grown brewing ingredients such as hops, the next step in the craft movement involves seeking out beers that go one step further and use ingredients harvested as close to home as possible.

The explosion of craft breweries in Minnesota in the last decade has presented farmers here with an opportunity to answer the call for fresh, local, high-quality hops. But reviving the industry (mentions of hop growing in Minnesota date back to the mid-1800s, including data in the 1870 census stating that 222,065 pounds of hops were grown the previous year) hasn’t been easy. When the Minnesota Hop Growers Association (MHGA) began in 2013, there were less than 10 farmers growing about 10 acres of hops between the them, says John Brach, president of MHGA and owner of Stone Hill Farm in Stillwater.

Today, Brach estimates there are about 120 acres of hops being grown statewide. The state’s largest producer, Mighty Axe Hops, in Foley, underwent a major expansion two years ago, increasing production from three-and-a-half acres in 2013 to 80 acres today. Small hop producers, who grow between one-tenth of an acre and five acres, make up the rest of the group, Brach says.

An aerial view of the hopyard at St. Croix Valley Hops // Photo courtesy St. Croix Valley Hops

An aerial view of the hopyard at St. Croix Valley Hops // Photo courtesy St. Croix Valley Hops

Even with the increase, Minnesota hop growers are still major underdogs when compared with producers from the Pacific Northwest. Washington, Oregon, and Idaho’s combined 53,000 acres of hops account for more than 98 percent of the hops produced in North America, according to the Hop Growers of America, and the region provides a steady stream of predictable and reliable of hops to breweries around the country, including those in Minnesota.

Because they can’t compete in size, local growers have to find alternative ways to market their hops. “We can’t compete with the economies of scale; we have to give value,” says Eric Anderson, an owner of St. Croix Valley Hops in St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin, along with his wife, Tammy. “We market our farm as local [to the Minnesota breweries].”

The challenges of growing hops

Charlie Rohwer holds a selectively bread hop with Downy Mildew // Photo courtesy Charlie Rohwer

Dr. Charlie Rohwer holds a selectively bred hop affected by downy mildew // Photo courtesy Dr. Charlie Rohwer

“It’s a rare day when I’m not out here to see what’s going on,” Brach says on a sunny July morning at Stone Hill Farm, which is a half-acre in size and flourishing with hops. After training his hop bines to grow up 16-foot strings in the spring, Brach has spent the summer weeding and managing diseases and pests in anticipation of the harvest season, which runs from the end of August through September. He’ll sell his crop to local breweries, including Pitchfork Brewing Company across the river from his farm in Hudson, Wisconsin. “People get in and out [of the hop business],” he continues. “They get into it and find out the reality of how much time it takes. Then there are other challenges—things they weren’t fully aware of, such as the disease.”

Other climates with less rainfall don’t get some of the diseases Minnesota and Wisconsin growers have to deal with, such as downy mildew, powdery mildew, and new diseases like fusarium, says Dr. Charlie Rohwer, a longtime home brewer and a horticulturist at the University of Minnesota’s Southern Research and Outreach Center in Waseca, Minnesota.

“Hops grow very well in the arid valleys in Washington, because the weather is generally mild, humidity is low, winters are cold enough for dormancy, and irrigation is generally available,” he explains. “But hops have also grown well for centuries in central Europe, where summertime highs are lower than in Washington and summer rain is more plentiful.”

In addition to his work focusing on sweet corn, peas, and other vegetables, Rohwer has been working on breeding a hop special to Minnesota’s difficult climate since 2012. “It’s coming along but slowing proceeding,” he says. “Part of the idea is that we want to find something that will tolerate diseases.”

Last year, Rohwer planted one as-of-yet-unnamed variety; eight more were planted this spring for testing. As it’s still early in the research phase, Rohwer isn’t sharing too much information yet. “First, I have to make sure they will be able to grow it. From there, we’ll find out if their properties would make good beer. You can rub them to see if they smell good or interesting, but you still have to make beer,” he says.

Rohwer is after aromas and flavors he thinks brewers will want in their beers, which he summarizes as simply being “pleasant,” saying it could be citrus-like, tropical, herbal, floral and perfumy, minty, lychee peel, or reminiscent of a “chocolate-covered banana in a pine tree.”

Working with Rahr Malting in Shakopee this winter, Rohwer says a single-chambered version of a Randall (a double-chambered filter) will be used to infuse a neutral-tasting commercial beer with hop aroma from the experimental varieties. The infused beers will then be presented to a panel that will determine what the hops smell like and sort out the good from the “meh.” If one of the varieties already being bred is selected, a truly Minnesotan hop could be released in about five years, Rohwer says. “It should make life a little better for growers in Minnesota if we would have a hop they’re growing that’s not in Washington and they wouldn’t have to compete [for],” he adds.

Go big or stay small

A harvester prepares to unload its trailer at the Might Axe Hops facility in Foley, Minnesota // Photo courtesy Mighty Axe Hops

A harvester prepares to unload its trailer at the Might Axe Hops facility in Foley, Minnesota // Photo courtesy Mighty Axe Hops

Investing in equipment such as a harvester, dryer, and pelletizer and still stay profitable remains a hurdle for small hops growers looking to expand. “Our growth is limited until we can purchase equipment. We need to expand to sell more,” says Jeff Larson, who co-owns the quarter-acre Metropolitan Hops in Corcoran with Paul James.

This year OMNI Brewing in Maple Grove bought all of Metropolitan’s Cascade hops, which drinkers will be able to taste in beers coming out next year. Larson says they would like to get a harvester to grow even more, but it’s no small investment—it costs $30,000 or more to buy new, and between $12,000‒$16,000 to build from parts.

Anderson, of St. Croix Valley Hops, says he designed his equipment to process about five acres worth of hops; he doesn’t plan to ever grow more than 15 acres. His picking machine can go through 100 bines an hour. The goal is to pick a batch (or lot) of one hop variety in one day in order to maintain the same flavor profile. (Anderson currently grows 30 varieties.)

With its 80 acres, Mighty Axe, operated by CEO Eric Sannerud and COO Ben Boo, produces enough hops for large line production breweries such as Summit Brewing Company in St. Paul. Even so, Sannerud estimates that Mighty Axe’s acreage makes up only about three percent of the total hops Minnesota brewers use each year.

As the largest player in the local market, Mighty Axe’s state-of-the-art harvesting and pelleting facility offers a blueprint for where the Minnesota hops industry could eventually go. Sannerud says he hopes there’s still space and demand for more Minnesotans to get into larger scale hop production in coming years. “We’re the ones who have it all on the line—whether or not we succeed, it will show us what’s possible,” he says.

Quality, consistency, and marketing

Derek Allmendinger of Unmapped Brewing Company in Minnetonka, Minnesota // Photo by Kevin Kramer

An important consideration for Minnesota hops growers is providing a high-quality product desired by local breweries for its taste and marketability. The hops also need to have a consistent flavor profile so that larger breweries can recreate the same beer on an ongoing basis, which is currently why most breweries turn to more established sources like those in the Pacific Northwest. There is a benefit to using Minnesota-grown hops though: The terroir here brings out different flavors in hops like Cascade, Chinook, and Nugget, Brach says, which provide interesting options for breweries making smaller or seasonal batches.

The main priority for most growers is to build relationships with breweries that will lead to long-term collaborations. “If I didn’t know where [the hops] went, I wouldn’t even grow them,” Brach says. “I like to develop a relationship with a brewer and know where it’s going.” He adds that it’s also nice to be able to enjoy the final product.

Larson, of Metropolitan Hops, notes that there’s also great satisfaction in discovering that a beer made with his hops has been well received, as was the case with Lookout 60, a session IPA from OMNI made to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Lookout Bar and Grill in Maple Grove. “It’s just the sense of pride we created this; the fact we made something for others to enjoy,” he says.

These relationships are also an opportunity for brewers to better get to know the products they’re using. Derek Allmendinger, head brewer at Unmapped Brewing in Minnetonka, closely follows the local hops industry and uses Minnesota hops for his SMaSH (single malt and single hop) beers in order to best capture their full flavor. This year, Unmapped released two SMaSH beers using Cascade hops grown by Brach and Anderson, which had different flavor profiles due to each farm’s terroir—one was fruity, the other was piney.

Allmendinger thinks local growers are increasingly processing their crops more carefully, resulting in better quality. “I don’t think it’s going to be too long before we start seeing a consistent product. It’s going to be about education,” he says. “It’s my goal to have a year-round beer with Minnesota hops in it.”

Brach says local hop growers often have to overcome the perception that their products are inferior compared to hops from out of state—a hurdle created from the fact that some brewers have received rotted product from local growers in the past.

Hops being sorted and processed // Photo courtesy Mighty Axe Hops

Hops being sorted and processed // Photo courtesy Mighty Axe Hops

This issue often is the product of a mistake made during processing, Brach explains. For example, hops need to be dried to 10 percent moisture before being packaged and sold, but a less experienced grower may only dry his or her crop to 18 to 20 percent because the hops look and feel dry. If those hops end up in a Mylar bag, they’ll be rotten by the time they arrive at the brewery.

To better educate growers and inspire more Minnesota breweries to have confidence in locally grown hops, the MHGA is in the process of creating a certification program for growers. Once the basics are locked in, hopefully the other pieces of the puzzle—namely cost—will fall into place. “Quality and consistency are key, but availability and pricing can’t be overlooked,” says Damian McConn, head brewer of Summit Brewing Company. “Minnesota hops will continue to grow in popularity if brewers can utilize their specific characteristics at a competitive price.”

McConn says Minnesota hops are slightly more expensive than varieties sourced from other parts of the country. In addition to purchasing from Mighty Axe, Summit uses hops from the Pacific Northwest and European and Southern Hemisphere varieties.

Summit has brewed about a half-dozen research beers using Minnesota-grown hops over the last five years, all in its research and development pilot brewhouse and all for in-house evaluation only, McConn says. Last year, the brewery’s Minnesota State Fair beer, the Lazy Sipper, was the first beer produced in Summit’s larger commercial brew house using locally grown Cascade and Crystal hops from Mighty Axe, as well as locally grown grain and strawberries. It was so well received that Summit decided to package and sell it at retail this year. Its success could indicate whether or not the market is ready for all-local beer. “Hopefully, Sipper will be well received by beer lovers and we can continue to brew it going forward,” McConn says.

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Tasting the Minnesota Terroir

Beers made with local hops available in September:

Unmapped MN Hop Series #6

Mighty Axe Crystal in early September. Allmendinger says it will be a SMaSH pale ale and as the name indicates, it will have Crystal hops from Mighty Axe.

OMNI Soaked

A wet hop pale ale made with Cascade hops from Metropolitan Hops that will be available by the end of September. Zack Ward, co-founder and head brewer of Omni, says the flavor due to the wet hop will be resiny and more floral as opposed to tropical fruit or citra flavors.

Summit Cranky Woodsman

Brewed using smoked malt, maple syrup, and a touch of Crystal hops from Mighty Axe. McConn says the spiciness of the crystal nicely complements the malt and maple flavors of the brown ale.


For more beers using locally grown hops, read our round-up of new beer releases, published every Friday: The Mash-Up.