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.