on Minnesota hops

A reader posted this question to the “About” page of this blog:

I’m curious about your thoughts of the hops industry, or lack thereof in MN. It seems that there are breweries opening every month, but virtually no one in MN is growing hops at even a semi-commercial scale. Do you think this is a needed industry in MN, and do you think that the local brewers would prefer to brew with locally sourced hops?

… and as I’ve written and rewritten my thoughts on this, the response turned into something that needed more than a one-paragraph reply to a thread on a different topic. 

First, is hop farming a needed industry in Minnesota?

Speaking from my own experience and bias, I am all for a business or industry that could slow the decay and depopulation of the rural upper Midwest and restore some infrastructure, at least in a small way, and I think hop yards are way cooler than casinos and industrial hog farms.

Second, would local brewers prefer locally-sourced hops?

To get a better handle on the question of what our hometown brewers need and want out of a native hop industry, I reached out to James Altwies, President and CEO of Gorst Valley Hops in Mazomanie, WI.

“Every brewer we engage is primarily concerned about consistency of supply, quality and form of the product, and price,” Altwies related. “A very well-known brewer was quoted saying to me, ‘James, if it grows in my backyard and the quality is sh*t … I’m not interested.’  That summed up the main brewer concerns for me.”

As my fellow Minnesotan beer nerds know, some very well known brewers use – at least occasionally – locally-grown hops. Gorst Valley is anticipating the day when this practice is more common: “We developed robust quality control systems that start in the field and continue all the way through hop processing and even to beer production.  The brewer must be confident of their source-of-supply, especially when paying a premium, when dealing with local producers.”

From a demand perspective, brewers will always need hops. Professional or amateur, anyone who’s been brewing in the past 10 years knows about the strain that the unprecedented current demand for hops is placing on supply. In For the Love of Hops, Stan Hieronymous cites the statistic that

“… US craft brewers made less than 6% of the beer sold in 2011, [but] they used about 60% of domestically grown aroma hops”

… while at the same time

“aroma hop acreage worldwide shrank 49% between 1991 and 2011.”

And remember – there are 1000-odd new craft breweries in planning that (presumably) haven’t started, or are just beginning to contract for hops!

But, just like relationships and decoction mashes, it’s complicated. Growing hops at a commercial scale is labor- and capital-intensive and technically demanding. Gorst Valley’s Altwies told me: “ Brewers want to see expertise and history from a producer, but producers do not want to risk growing hops if they don’t have a market. Chicken and egg.”

“We tell people that if they love craft beer and want to be a bigger part of the industry then advocate for the wider use of local ingredients,” Altwies finished. “Learn what is required to produce at a small commercial scale. What it comes down to is providing a superior product at a reasonable price and exhibiting expertise at every level of production.”

I also asked reader Jay – who is a prospective Minnesotan hop farmer himself, and who posited this question in the first place – for his reasons:

I’m certainly not getting into this with the expectation of being rich. I enjoy the hard work, being outside, and growing things, from hops to tomatoes, to corn, etc. This just seems like the perfect fit for our family.

As far as the industry goes, I am feeling positive. Craft beer is growing at a rapid pace in this area, but there is hardly anyone growing hops at a commercial level in MN. Now in a perfect world that seems like a no-brainer, but you still have to convince local brewers to use and trust your hops instead of Yakima hops. I think it is a pretty big gamble at this point, but you have to start somewhere right?

Cheers to starting somewhere. Slainte, citizens.

18 thoughts on “on Minnesota hops

  1. CSU in Colorado has done research on, with our huge number of Craft brewers, the demand and profitability of CO hops. Yet there are still scarce growers. Source reliability, cost, and consumer ignorance are all negative contributors. I do believe that ultimately, the demand for local, “slow” products will require local hops, at least in climates that are hospitable to them.

    Until then, grow them in the back yard and rejoice that you are supporting the local product movement.

  2. Growing hops isn’t the detractor, it’s processing that’s the challenge. Pellet dies, oast houses and bailing equipment are a huge expense and probably worthwhile only on a large scale farm. Plus all of the skilled folks to run them… You’re correct it’s the chicken and the egg.

  3. Glad I found your blog. The Gorst valley website page on history reads exactly like my family history. Came from Onieda NY in 1836 and brought hops rhizomes with them. Reading diaries and bz. account books it was an extremly fickle crop in the midwest that could make a person rich 1860 by speculating or poor 1870-1890 because of blight, weather, and the hop louse (lice I think). That and the fact that the market could bite you in the butt rather quickly. From a family that lost a century farm in 1963 farming ain’t for sissies, but that being said there is nothing that gives me more peace than getting back to my roots. Planning on doubling my hop yard this year.
    PS If you ever need any Pink Squirrels for the Driftless area (8000 acres of heaven in WI) let me know.

  4. Great post. If you are thinking about going “large scale” or “commercial” with hops in Minnesota, here are the items you should ponder before “betting the farm.” I’m not sure where to start but you’ll begin to see, even in other states, why hop growing on a large scale, isn’t taking off:

    1) Extremely high start up costs – An acre of hops with poles, plants, irrigation, renting machinery, and wires will run you about $8,000 to $10,000 an acre. 10 acre startup = about $80,000 to $100,000 dollars. Did I forget to mention the extra cost of renting or purchasing the land yet?

    2) A whole lot of time – An acre of hops can take up to 280 hours of time. 30 hours for planting and production. 70-150 hours for harvesting and another 50-100 hours for packaging/grading. 10 acres of hops = 2,800 hours in a shortened seasonal time period. And, seasonal hiring and managing will be a must.

    3) Processing Costs for harvesting, drying, packaging and chemical analysis – If you plan on standing alone on this portion, get that checkbook out. If you grow anything over one single acre, you’ll need a harvester. The cost to pay workers to pick the hops by hand will drain any and all profits quickly. You can purchase 30+ old Wolfe harvesters from Germany and have them shipped here for $35,000 to $70,000. Or, you can purchase a new harvester if you have a cool $150,000 to $250,000+ if you’re looking to harvest more than 100+ acres. There are more simple machines coming into the market place that help beat the hops off the plants, designed for 1-5 acres. Those seem to run around $8,000 to $12,000. Not much found on how well they perform.

    You’ll also need to purchase or create an oast or place to dry your hops. That means factoring in building costs, a heating system or source and screens – $$$. Next you’ll need to purchase the upgraded pelletizer that cools the hammer so you don’t overheat the hops while they are being crushed down and made into pellets. Those machines can run $5,000 to $15,000+. Once turned into pellets, you will need to continue with weighing and then using your special nitrogen packing machine ($10,000 -$20,000), start packaging by hand. You’ll also need to purchase or rent freezer space for immediate cold storage.

    I wish I were done there but nope. You’ll need to send your hops to a place that can analyze each field or type of hops to show brewers the chemical make up. The analysis costs need to be factored in and the time to mail and wait for results.

    The other option for processing is to take them to a Hops processing plant. That is, if you’re lucky enough to have a plant within an hour or two away! You don’t want your prized hops spoiling in a hot trailer on the freeway across the country. With processing business you’ll pay them per pound to take the hops off the bines, to dry them, to pelletize them, chemical analysis and packing. Depending on the service provided, figure about $3- $5 per pound or more to have them do it all. Keep in mind The USDA shows that the average cost per pound to breweries was $3.19 per pound in 2010. The locally grown and sold hop is typically sold for more; maybe $8-$15 per pound if your lucky but vastly less quantity sold to each.

    This is only 1 facet of hops growing in MN. I still have topics like working with local breweries and the limited quantity bought for specialty brews, the limits of what types of hops that grow in MN, the type of hops that brewers want that are proprietary and not available to you, the insect threats, pesticides, diseases, the unpredictable and severe weather happening now days, the history of aroma hops prices raising and falling, takes 4 years for your plants to give full yield … the list goes on.

    If, after all you’ve read, you are still interested, there are plenty of resources to learn more, i.e. online videos, books, articles, workshops and blogs. Gorst Valley Hops does offer multiple workshops. A friend of mine went to one of the sessions but was a bit disappointed. Specifically, the multiple presenters stressed how “awful” and how much difficult work it all was and at the end of it all, the main presenter told the group of 50-60 people something to the tune of “my job is to make sure 95% of you don’t put a single hop plant in the ground.” At that point, about 57 people wish they could have had their $200 back.

    Good luck!

    • I only skimmed the first paragraph on this post so I cant say your wrong on everything, but it was starting to look that way. im farming a 1/2 acre of hops and it cost me about $2700 to get started, and I over payed for some of my plants. Growing hops does not need to be expensive. give it a shot.

  5. Hops were once grown abundantly in the mid west and east coast. Michigan and Wisconsin are now seeing a resurgeance of hop farms that will be bringing fresh hops to the growing craft beer scene. This is a very good thing.

  6. Stan also said in his book that you rarely see a first generation hop farmer, and I doubt that its not for lack of trying! I think it might be worth it to just grow your own and be a happy stress-free person.

  7. MZA, Can you remind me again what hops variates you grow again? I started last year with Willimate EKG and Mt. Hood. My cascade didn’t make it, so I was going to replace that this year and maybe a couple of others. I am thinking a Liberty or Magnum and maybe a Norther Brewer for bittering or a Saaz type… Having a tough time deciding…

  8. Corn is very profitable right now, so I really can’t see why a farmer would give up a guaranteed income to venture into hops.

  9. Interesting post. I’m sorry to hear that the Upper Midwest is apparently succumbing to the Rust Belt. You Minnesotans have always been really kind to this surly New Englander. Anyways, I was wondering if you, or your readers, know how to get involved with the lab analysis of commercial hops? Underemployed chemist here willing to do damn near anything to gain meaningful employment in the brewing industry, or related industries! I know how to operate a spectrophotometer and an HPLC…

  10. There is lots to consider and lots to learn when it comes to growing hops in MN. Starting small can definitely help keep the capitol and time requirements in check. There are several new growers in MN this year and more starting next year (myself included), and a lot of these growers are coming up with new ideas and innovating when it comes to harvesting, drying and processing hops. Anyone that’s interested in commerical hop growing should check with the MN Hop Growers Association which organized this year to support a commerical hop growers community in MN. http://www.mhga.org

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