The Botany of Beer

Southern Research and Outreach Center // Photography by Patrick O'Leary © University of Minnesota

Southern Research and Outreach Center // Photography by Patrick O’Leary © University of Minnesota

“Hops grow up a trellis that’s 20 feet tall – nothing else does that,” he says. Indeed, they may be limited only by the challenges of the support structure on which they climb. Ask any grower – driving 25-foot poles into the ground for stringing hops every year and harvesting them several months later isn’t an easy task, especially without proper, and often expensive, equipment.

So Rohwer is experimenting with 10- and 16-foot trellises made of permanent polypropylene mesh. These would simplify trellis installation and maintenance, scouting and pest/disease control, and harvesting.

Should the University’s research prove successful, Minnesota and the Midwest could someday sustain its burgeoning craft brewing industry with locally-grown hops. Rohwer says that the end goal could be exactly what the Minnesota craft brewing industry needs.

“There’s a lot of interest in growing hops for local craft beers, but there’s not a lot of research going on. There is a gap in knowledge,” says Rohwer. Hop growers and small-scale breweries represent a new and emerging sector of the agriculture industry in Minnesota, and so the University will support the industry, he says.

From the ground up

The University of Minnesota did the same thing for the wine industry in Minnesota. Thirty years ago, you would have said, “What wine industry?” But in the 1980s the University’s grape-breeding program created cold-hearty varieties that could handle Minnesota winters, and launched an industry that today contributes about $40 million annually to the state’s economy. Not to mention sunny, summer afternoons spent touring and sampling wines at a Minnesota vineyard. Many beer enthusiasts would like to see the same for hops.

Rohwer cautions, however, that it may be 15 years down the road before the University has one or two new varieties that brewers can use, but in the meantime his experiments are a source of information for local growers to be able to make decisions.

“Growers are starting to plant their own acreages, and they’re starting to have their own questions, and I can’t tell them what questions to have,” says Rohwer. He presented at the April conference to learn directly from the brewers what they want.

In the meantime, some growers are diving right in.

Hippity Hop Farms

George Shetka took the pioneer route and began Hippity Hops Farms in 2009 with just one acre in Forest Lake, Minnesota. Today, he produces a couple hundred pounds of hops per year. Aside from a two-acre hops farm at Brau Brothers Brewery in Lucan, Minnesota, Shetka’s farm is the biggest in the state, so far as he knows, and the only one that sells hops commercially.

He says there wasn’t much information when he began about how and what to grow in Minnesota, so he turned to the Internet, eventually settling on the Cascade variety of hops, because it grew at about the same longitude in other places on the globe. So far, it’s working well.

The biggest challenge, he says, is that growing hops is very labor intensive. Once picked, you’ve got about 24 hours to dry the hop cones before they spoil, and without machinery, which can run $20,000, it has to be done by hand.

“There’s not a processing plant around – you can grow it but I don’t have enough friends or relatives to come pick it by hand, and believe me, I wouldn’t have any friends left by next year if I asked them to,” says Shetka.

Fortunately, he was able to partner with Lift Bridge Brewery in Stillwater, Minnesota, which hosts a hop cone-picking event each year called Pickin’ and Grinnin’. In a sweetheart of a deal, they purchase hops from Hippity Hop Farms and make an event out of the harvesting, enlisting dozens of customers to pick hops while listening to bluegrass.

The time is right

Minnesota is now 20th in the nation in breweries per capita and gaining ground, with the number of breweries planned or already operating having more than doubled in the last nine years, according to the U.S. Beer Institute. Nationwide, craft brewing is a $10 billion industry, growing at a rate of more than ten percent per year. All that beer brewing takes millions of dollars worth of hops and barley, almost all of which are imported from farmers well beyond Minnesota’s borders. If the enthusiasm at the craft brewing industry meeting at the University is any indication, “Brewed in Minnesota” might mean a whole lot more in the future.

—Adam Overland is a writer and editor with the University of Minnesota who enjoys a fine IPA.

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