By Adam Overland
Minnesota is changing. The change was subtle at first, and many years from now it will be hard to say or remember exactly when it began. But history books love to mark time with dates, and so when the textbook is written about the history of hops in Minnesota, February 22, 2014 will be a date you’ll want to remember, should there be an exam.
On that day, more than 60 people gathered in the newly opened Day Block Brewing Company in Minneapolis, with another 20 deterred by a vicious winter storm a day earlier that made travel sheer hell for 48 hours all across the state. It was a reminder that growing hops in Minnesota is different from growing hops in the Pacific Northwest, where Washington and Oregon produce the vast majority grown in the U.S. But at the first annual membership meeting of the Minnesota Hop Growers Association (MHGA), it’s full steam ahead.
Telling Tales, Making History
At this first meeting, the University of Minnesota’s Dr. Charlie Rohwer talks about how the research begun in 2010—growing hops at research stations in Waseca and Rosemount—is progressing. He’s also here to do what he arguably does best, which is to listen.
The growers in attendance have varying levels of experience, and they’re telling tales of trellis design to support these strange plants, whose bines climb 20 or more feet in the air and drink one to two gallons of water per day in the summer heat. Hop bines can catch the wind like a sail and take down the whole works if they were strung up wrong by a grower cutting corners to save a buck. So you better have strung 9-guage tension wire—hundreds of feet of it—tying together your 20 foot long posts that are eight inches thick at the base and pounded four feet into the ground, below the Minnesota frost line. Posts made from tamarack, or black locust, or old telephone poles, or what? Of Minnesota native white pine and cedar, suggests someone. And counterweight that cable with a “dead guy” buried in the ground or you’ll be sorry.
Most of the experience here today consists of little to none. But never mind experience. Enthusiasm is off the charts. This is indeed the beginning of something. A burgeoning industry is evolving right before our eyes.
The Beginnings of MHGA
As Vice President of MHGA Jeremy Munson tells the tale, most roads paved with hops lead to Charlie Rohwer.
“His name came up down several paths of trying to figure out who knows about hops in this area. We contacted Charlie and he said, ‘Hey, there’s a couple more people interested, why don’t we set up a conference call?’” says Munson.
John Brach, now president of MHGA, was also on that call that gave birth to an organization in March 2013, which by all accounts is altruistic for and on behalf of Minnesota-grown hops and those who want to get on board. MHGA, says Brach, was created with a few simple aims.
“Our whole purpose of existing is to help educate people interested in growing hops, get them connected with growers and suppliers, and to support research in Minnesota,” he says. “And we’ve done a little bit of all of that this past year.”
Brach started looking into growing hops in 2011 for something to do as he was getting ready to retire from a career as an engineer for the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
“There was a lot going on in Wisconsin […] but there really was not much happening in Minnesota,” says Brach. “Charlie Rohwer was doing some research, and Hippity Hops Farms—probably Minnesota’s best known hop yard—had been growing for a few years, but that was about all we knew,” he says.
Brach wanted to form a network and community of support in Minnesota like what he’d found in Wisconsin, but he didn’t quite know how to start.
“We had no idea who else was interested. I asked how many growers we needed for an association, and I recall Charlie saying we need at least two in order to make the name plural,” says Brach. Barely a dozen months later the organization is pushing 100 members.
Brach took his own plunge into hops recently, buying land near Stillwater, where he put hops in the ground for the first time in spring of 2013, giving life to Stone Hill Farm. He and his wife, Kim, also keep bees and their business card happily reads “Hops & Honey.”
Brach believes that MHGA and Minnesota are at the start of something big.
“I’m hoping [Minnesota’s] growth isn’t just linear—I’m hoping we double the state’s acreage for each of the next few years—to get operations going where people can see it,” says Brach. Currently, he estimates the state has under ten acres of hop yards, but he anticipates hosting hop yard tours some day soon for people to visit the farm and the very ground from which their beer is grown.
It’s strange to associate the prefix “Dr.” with Charlie Rohwer at all. Everyone here calls him “Charlie.” And when those history books are written, Rohwer will be remembered as a humble but excitable force whose curiosity and love of the science of beer gelled a local industry just beginning to take shape. He’s an academic with a PhD in Applied Plant Sciences, barely in his 30s, who today sports a hefty winter beard that makes him look more like a woodsman than a researcher. He calls his child on the way “Nugget” after a variety of hops. Those who say Rohwer is passionate about his work must be unaware of the word obsessive.
Just four years into his research, he’s still learning. Already, he’s found that his hypothesis that a shorter trellis system made of permanent polypropylene mesh isn’t going to simplify harvesting hops, as he’d originally thought.
He’s also learning what varieties grow well in Minnesota and noting subtleties even in growing locations, such as how soil types in Waseca versus Rosemount affect growing. For example, he found that the hops in Rosemount started growing earlier than the hops in Waseca. Soil in Rosemount drains better and heats up faster in the spring due to its high sand content, unlike the clay soil in Waseca, says Rohwer.
But Rohwer is most excited to have begun breeding for a new variety.
“Long-term, that’s going to be really interesting for the growers in the state, and useful. They’ll be able, if everything goes well, to have something that we know grows well here, that has the properties that [brewers] are looking for, and that they’ll have been a part of creating, because as we get down the road I’ll have to solicit help from all these people around the state to determine what grows well where you are, and what grows well where you are […] and so I’m looking forward to working with them,” says Rohwer.
He cautions to be patient—a Minnesota born and bred hop is still 10–15 years in the future. But he believes the industry will continue on its path of growth all the same and anticipates big things for the future of hops in Minnesota.
“It’s exciting to see the growth,” says Rohwer. “I compare it to how Michigan was just two or three years ago—they have twice the number of breweries that we have here. But in 2011 there were a lot of people in Michigan that had a quarter-acre, a half-acre, and an acre of hops—and now there are people in Michigan who have 50 acres of hops. It’s exciting that something like that might be possible, and it’s all coinciding with increased interest and numbers of craft brewers, and in craft brewers using local ingredients, too.”
If You Grow It, They Will Brew
Day Block Brewing Company offered to host the MHGA’s meeting because Day Block’s owners and head brewer Paul Johnston are advocates of local hops production, so much so that Day Block spent an extra $70,000 on equipment so they can brew with whole-cone hops. Talking to Johnston, who previously brewed at Harriet and Lucid, one gets the idea he’d be happy to take the whole plant, leaves and stems and all—maybe even some dirt—and put that sucker right in his brews. His beer doesn’t suffer for that philosophy, either. His talk with MHGA members is brief and to the point:
“Keep growing hops. We love it. We’re gonna buy them,” he says.
Day Block purchased more than a ton of hops from the Wisconsin Hop Exchange and Hippity Hops Farms.
“I expect to need a whole lot more than that next year,” says Johnston. “So I’m very happy that you’re all sitting here in this room talking together about growing hops.”
One thing seems certain at MHGA’s inaugural meeting: Not many growers are worried about finding a buyer for hops grown in Minnesota. When Johnston is asked about local markets, he says simply, “We [brewers] are all aware of the Minnesota Hop Growers Association. And we are all rather excited. So expect that a lot of these people will be reaching out to you as the growing season starts.”
Ultimately, says Johnston, the interest among brewers comes out of the same desire to eat locally, to consume locally.
“It’s the same kind of thing happening in industries all over the world,” he says. “My biggest thing, the thing I love the most about using local hops… is that I can actually meet the people who have grown our hops. I can shake their hands and talk to them… We’re invested in each other.”
But Johnston’s real excitement comes from his anticipation of doing more of what he loves to do, which is brew beer, doing it even better with local ingredients.
“My job as a brewer in the Twin Cities right now is to make beer that is good enough to make the other breweries step up their game. So if I’m doing my best job making the best beer I can, then everyone else is going to have to make the best beer that they can make, so that we’re all making better beer,” he says.
Printing Business Cards
Growers are coming in all shapes and sizes. They’re coming with printed business cards. Most of these farms launched in 2012–13, and 2014 will be their first true season.
There’s John Brach’s Stone Hill Farm near Stillwater; Mighty Axe Hops near Ham Lake; North Road Hops near Grand Marais; and Ocean Fields Vineyard, which, as you might guess, is a vineyard diversifying with hops. There also is Gerhard Hops near Pine City, which, at nearly five acres, is perhaps the biggest in the state. Finally, the gold standard—Hippity Hops Farms in Forest Lake, which may be the oldest, founded in 2008. And there are many, many more coming. The map of MHGA members will give you an idea of just how many there are, or are going to be, in a very short period:
On one end of the spectrum is Jeremy Munson, VP of MHGA and owner of Ocean Fields Vineyard. He’s in his fifth year of operating a four-acre, 2,000 vine vineyard with his wife Kallie. Now, they’ve added one acre of hops and he plans to grow fast. He’s made big investments including purchasing a mechanized hops harvester called a Wolf Picker 170. Harvesting is one of the most challenging aspects of hops production. The Wolf Picker pulls the hops off nearly 200 bines an hour—about the same pace as you and 200 of your closest friends.
“My experience from grape growing—and knowing how extremely hard it is—the amount of labor that goes into growing grapes is really about the same as it is for hops. It’s really hands on,” says Munson.
Still, he’s gearing up to go big—at least for local hops, where a quarter- to a half-acre hop yard is about average. He’d like to get five acres and make hops and wine more than a hobby.
“I live south of Mankato, but I work at Ameriprise’s headquarters in downtown Minneapolis,” says Munson. “I don’t want to drive 100 miles to work everyday. I want to find a job that will allow me to live on my farm—something local, something that I can own, something that I can pass to my kids. I’m working as a business consultant, but I don’t want to do this the rest of my life.”
Munson sees his farm fitting in to an even bigger hops picture for the state and the region.
“Minnesota obviously has a lot of breweries… so we have a lot of demand for hops. But Minnesota also has a lot of farmers. I think farmers are going to see this as an opportunity to grow hops—and use their talent as farmers. The U.S. supplies, I believe, a third or more of the world’s hops. And it’d be nice for us to try to compete with Oregon and Washington. Not just Minnesota breweries buying our hops—but Midwestern breweries buying their hops from Minnesota,” says Munson.
On the other end of that spectrum is Andy Heimdahl. He and his wife purchased a small farm a little more than a year ago near Lanesboro, and he wants to keep it small and focus on growing organic hops.
“We’re going organic—and organic hops are basically a niche of a niche crop—so there’s not a lot of info on small scale commercial hops growing,” says Heimdahl.
He says he joined the MHGA not only to learn from others, but so that others might learn from his mistakes. Last year, only about a third of the 24 plants he put in the ground as a test plot came up. He planted from rhizomes, and this year he intends to use starter plants—more expensive, but less likely to have viruses that could ruin a harvest. Heimdahl recognizes that it’s going to be a long learning experience for he and his wife. They started by taking a course from the Land Stewardship Project.
“I’m a software developer by day—my wife is a nurse at Mayo. And we just wanted to get back to the land a little bit. I feel like [hops growers] are learning all over again how to grow hops at this scale. It’s just getting reintroduced to the Midwest, and so we’re having to be innovative and inventive, and to figure out ways to harvest and process these things on a small scale,” says Heimdahl.
Heimdahl spent less than $2,000 in 2013 to get his test plot under way, but his dreams are big.
“I have this little dream in the back of my head of starting a farm brewery. I would like to spend more of my time doing that than sitting behind a computer monitor, that’s for sure. And if that’s my life—growing hops and brewing beer and sharing it with folks—that’s a dream come true.”