For the upcoming June/July issue of the Rocky Mountain Brewing News I wrote a feature article exploring what it means to “drink local.” Locally made beer using locally grown products seems to be the ultimate quest in the minds of beer drinkers, but it’s not the easiest to accomplish for the brewer. Plus, in our current boom of beer exploration, we celebrate the use of the latest southern hemisphere hops just as much as we tout the use of European malts in our authentic “local” beers.
Montana is getting closer to being capable of pulling off “local” on a large scale It helps that the concept of local is a little broader in a state the size of New England, but local in Big Sky Country is indeed something different. Growing up in Virginia, a three hour drive was a significant endeavor. Here in Montana it’s just the next town over.
Montana grows some of the best barley in the world and has its own major malting plant with Malteurop’s facility in Great Falls. (Specialty malting on a significant scale in Montana remains elusive.)
Minor hop production has taken place for years at small farms such as Fais-do-do in Corvalis and Purple Frog Gardens near Whitefish. But significant commercial production of hops in Montana is getting closer, thanks to the work of Tom Britz and his Glacier Hops Ranch south of Whitefish in Montana’s agriculturally-rich Flathead Valley.
I reached out to Tom Britz for my Brewing News article and received a wealth of information on his efforts. Due to space constraints, much of that info did not make it into the article – the benefit being this chance to bring more of the interview to you here.
Britz did not set out to become a hop grower. “Frankly, it was not the original notion,” explains Britz. “I had a 30 acre pasture that badly needed to be redone, as years of pasturing cattle, horses and even yaks had created a field that needed to be cleaned up and another crop established.
“One of my neighbors suggested a different forage crop and when I brought that suggestion to Dr. Pat McGlynn, our Flathead County MSU Extension Agent, she shook her head ‘no’, as she had heard of problems with that alternative crop. She then asked me ‘have you ever considered hops? I understand that they should do well in this climate.'”
Britz dove into the idea with a round of research and emerged not long after with a successful matching grant through Montana’s Growth Through Agriculture program. The grant allowed him to determine whether the idea might work in an area that shares the same latitude as Germany’s famed Hallertau hop growing region.
“I knew nothing about hops and we decided to scale it way down and learn about the specifics of how to cultivate hops first,” says Britz. “So that’s how the research plot originated. Now three seasons, thousands of hours and lots of skinning my knees later, we’re looking to finally expand production into that field that was the subject of the original discussion.”
Speaking at the Montana Brewers Association’s annual conference last fall, Dr. McGlynn was quick to praise Britz’s enthusiasm for the work. “Tom was able to jump start this program because he took the initiative.” said, McGlynn. “I’m the person that keeps Tom coloring between the lines. Tom is always out in front.”
Phase I of Glacier Hops Ranch began in 2013 with 800 plants covering 17 varieties planted over 3/4 of an acre. A small, labor intensive harvest by hand followed a summer of trellis construction and irrigation installation.
Twenty-three varieties were added for 2014, creating the largest field trial between Washington’s Yakima Valley and Michigan. The trellis design was converted to the European “V” shaped trellis. And just in time for harvest, Britz welcomed the arrival of a Wolf Hop Harvester from Germany. The clunky-looking machine mechanically separates the hops from the bines, a necessary addition for commercial scale production.
For 2015, Britz expects to have around 47 varieties in the ground including several new varieties to replace the southern hemisphere hops which failed to survive the winter. A full chemical spectrum analysis of last year’s crop revealed the “Montana terroir” allows Britz to grow a true-to-type hop, often with above-average alphas and other oils.
“This summer is when the real work begins,” says Britz. “Over the course of this year, I am hoping to add an additional 30 acre production field, focusing on building trellis, irrigation and planting of eight or nine varieties that our craft brewers have requested, focusing on the 3 C’s (Cascade, Centennial and Chinook), with a half dozen other varieties, while keeping the research plot in production and evaluating varieties for future expansion.”
Growing hops and processing hops, however, are two very different things.
Stan Hieronymus, whose knowledge on hops rivals anyone’s, explores this issue in a post last October at his blog, Appellation Beer: Celebrating Beer From A Place. Stan notes Summit Brewing founder Mark Stutrud “made a serious commitment to using locally grown barley” a few years ago, but has taken a wait and see approach to using local Minnesota hops.
Stan quotes Sean McGree, hops manager at Brewers Supply Group, noting a missing link in the hops supply equation for new hop growers: “All they are worried about is getting their trellises in and hop going. They don’t realize that 60 percent of the quality that brewers see comes after the hops are picked.”
Britz recognizes the importance of the processing side of the business, particularly in an area like Montana that is far removed from the traditional hop growing regions and lacks their scale and institutional knowledge.
“Our focus has to be on leveraging our small scale into an advantage, and providing an alternative product that the large scale producers can’t match,” he notes. “We looked at several alternative drying options to improve the aromatics, and began collaborating with a producer in Michigan who developed a low heat/no heat method.
“We are betting on this low-heat/no-heat drying method that has been proven to retain more of the aromatic oils – particularly the highly volatile myrcene and farnesene oils. This ‘artisan-crafted’ drying method takes longer, and so our drying capacity has to be roughly two to two and a half times more per acre. It’s more expensive to produce it this way, but it results in a better quality ingredient, so it would definitely set us apart.”
Hop Growers of America is an industry trade group supporting the hop industry. According to the HGA, hop acreage in all states outside the big three – Washington, Oregon and Idaho – accounted for only 2% of the total. Still, recognizing the emerging interest in hop growing from coast to coast, the HGA formed a Small Grower Council earlier this year.
Britz was elected to chair the Council which is quickly getting organized. Initial commitments include growers stretching from inland San Diego to northern Massachusetts. Their first task is rudimentary, but important – figuring out just who are the estimated 300 to 400 small commercial growers across the United States. From there, the Council expects to identify and prioritize the needs specific to small scale production and how it can work to address and fill such needs.
“It is important to understand that the only reason the opportunity for geographically-diverse small acreage growers exists is because of the growth in the craft brewery segment,” Britz explains. “The collaboration between growers and craft brewers is something that HGA will be bringing to small growers as well, in the form of GAP (Good Agricultural Practices), because after all, it has to be treated as a food ingredient on the farm. It’s not like baling hay for cattle.”
Britz also throws out a word of caution for those thinking of turning a spare acre or two into a hop farm. “I can tell that many of the people who are interested in growing hops don’t understand the required commitment of both capital and time/energy,” says Britz. “I’d liken hops to the pig vs. the chicken in a bacon and eggs breakfast. To the chicken, it’s a contribution. To the pig, it’s a commitment.
“Producing hops is a commitment. It requires specialized equipment and it is definitely not a casual endeavor. Just as you can’t be a small grain producer without access to a $250,000 combine, this crop has specialized requirements. It’s more like establishing a vineyard than planting an annual crop like barley or canola.”
Looking ahead, Britz hopes to add a full production facility in 2017 with on-site kilning using the artisan-crafted, low-heat process, baling and cold storage, and the ability to pelletize, package and distribute. You can follow along with the progress here: https://www.facebook.com/glacierhopsranch.