Photo by Caitlin Abrams
Mighty Axe Hops
Hops on the vine at Mighty Axe
Up at Mighty Axe Hops, in Ham Lake, 20-foot plants snake along sturdy wires, dangling papery green chandeliers of a million soft pinecones into the local breezes. These are the female flowers of the hops plant, and they are the subject of intense local interest. Every morning Ben Boo, chief horticulturalist of this three-man startup, drives up from the Twin Cities to check on them. If these plants take off, he is in on the ground floor of the next big thing. He’s not the only Minnesotan banking on hops.
In Lucan, Minnesota, the hops yard of Brau Brothers Brewing spent all summer trembling in the sun. When the little pinecone-looking darlings were pulled off their mother plant, they went in the tanks for Hundred Yard Dash, a mortgage-lifter of a beer which Brau Brothers sells out of every year in a flash.
Fulton Brewing keeps a private hops yard near St. Cloud. Forest Lake’s Hippity Hops harvested their strings of hops to send to Lift Bridge Brewing in Stillwater, and young professionals from the cities drove out in Jettas and Audis to spend the day providing the free agricultural labor of pulling the hop cones off the plants, so that the fresh cones can be tossed into a beer called Hop Dish. A few weeks later those same young professionals rushed around the Twin Cities spending their good money to hunt down the bottles of beer they helped make.
Meanwhile, down in Waseca, a young family moved here from Portland, Oregon, capital of the U.S. beer world, to plant hops on a hobby farm and start a farm brewery. Also in Waseca, Charlie Rohwer, the University of Minnesota’s hops guru and a researcher at the U of M’s Southern Research and Outreach Center, fields several calls a week from farmers looking to get into the $10,000-an-acre payoff that fresh hops promise.
Welcome to the great Minnesota hops boom of the year 2014.
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But first: Do you even know what hops are? If so, skip ahead a few paragraphs. If not, here’s what you need to know to understand the current green frenzy. To make beer you need to: Grow some barley. Harvest it, gathering up the little seeds. Convince the little seeds that they lived through the winter by storing them. Next, persuade the seeds the spring rains have come by soaking them in water. They will sprout. In the sprouting, all sorts of plant enzymes appear, to allow the growing plant to convert starch into sugar meant to provide the energy for a little seed to become full-fledged barley.
At this point, stop everything. Take the sprouting barley and dry it out, killing the embryonic plant, to seize that particular moment of its sugar and enzymes. You now have malted barley. Take the malted barley, throw it in a kettle, add water. This is called the wort. Wort is an ancient English word, related to the word root; wort is the root of beer. It tastes terrible. Really awful, like if you made toast soup, and added too much sugar. Or like Malt-O-Meal soup, with a few gallons of molasses. It’s sweet, bland, achingly dull. Taste wine before it’s fermented and it just tastes like very juicy wine. Taste bread dough and it tastes like terrible bread. But taste beer before the hops go in, and you’ll understand something about beer that’s essential: Beer isn’t beer without hops.
So, you take your sweet malted barley soup and add hops. Hops appear on tall, tangly green plants that look like vines but are in fact bines. (This is a botanical distinction. Bines twine around a support without any tendrils or suckers to hold them up; vines use tendrils and suckers.) Some call hops a spice; some call it a flavoring. It’s also a natural preservative allowing beer to be shelf-stable, and an antibacterial agent that prevents unwanted microbes from taking up residence in the sweet wort, creating off-flavors.
Before the basic recipe for beer as we know it was codified in medieval Europe, other flavoring agents were used to make beer taste less like toast-soup and more like beer. (This summer Surly made a special batch of pre-hops-era beer, called a gruit, bittered with dandelion leaves and citrus peels. It tasted great, very lemony and alive, but likely wouldn’t have lasted.) Once hops were discovered, the recipe was permanently changed: They’re just that good at flavoring and preserving. And they’re being planted all over Minnesota right now, the farmland echo of the urban brewery boom.
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“They’re easy to grow,” says Dustin Brau, the Brau Brothers brewer who’s had them for years. “You put them in, then three or four years later, they’re harder to kill than they are not to.” Well sort of.
At certain times in their growing season hops need half an inch of water a day and are susceptible to spider mites and a powdery mildew specific to hops. Worse, if you’re not keeping an eye on them they might spontaneously become wind-pollinated by wild hops and over time your hop yard will morph from a valuable thoroughbred to a worthless mutt!
On top of that, if we lived in Oregon you could simply drive them to a central processor, not unlike a local grain elevator, which would take them off your hands. But here, if you don’t have a brewer with tank space ready on the day you harvest, you’re out of luck, and most brewers want hops dried into pellets and not fresh and fluffy anyhow.
So, is Minnesota’s hops stein half-empty or half-full? Who knows?! States like Oregon have decades of hops-growing data from hops development research programs, breeding programs, and test breweries in their universities to find out if what they’re growing has commercial potential. Minnesota has a thousand people throwing things in the ground and seeing what happens, and a part-time researcher incessantly peppered with e-mails from brewers.
On top of that, there might be gold in them thar hills—Minnesota has thousands of naturalized hops plants living wild everywhere, the product of the late 19th century hops boom, which was hobbled by West Coast competition and local disease, and eventually killed by Prohibition. One of the most sought-after current varieties is Amarillo, a spontaneous wild cross that appeared in the field of a Washington hops grower. Who is to say there isn’t a million-dollar variety growing in some Mankato backyard right now? “I get that question all the time,” says Rohwer. “People find something and want to know if it’s worth anything. I tell them: make beer with it, and if it makes good beer try growing it and see what happens.” One cone might create 300 various taste and fragrance compounds, he explains, any of which might be changed by fermentation.
Meanwhile, Mike McQuery and his wife moved to Minnesota from Oregon last year, bought a hobby farm, and planted close to an acre of hops, with plans of opening a farm brewery in the spring of 2015. Oregon born and bred, they always wanted a farm brewery. But Oregon farm prices were prohibitive. When the couple came to visit family in Waseca, they happened to run into Charlie Rohwer, and found out what houses (and farms) cost around here.
McQuery hopes to open with a taproom, picnic tables, and eight or so beers, as well as a root beer and a ginger ale. Eventually he hopes to grow it into something like Oregon’s Agrarian Ales, where families come to spend the day, toss Frisbees, put back a few pints, and learn about how beer is grown. It will be called Half Pint, after Pa’s nickname for Laura Ingalls Wilder in the Little House on the Prairie books—after all, Waseca isn’t far from Walnut Grove.
Near Madison, Wisconsin, a hops cooperative called Gorst Valley has sprung up to process hops from small-scale growers and sell them to brewers. It also sells small-scale, affordable hops processing equipment to allow farmers to get their hops off the bines, and ready for brewers.
Todd Haug, the brewer from Surly, explicitly forbids you from showing up at his back door with a pickup truck of your fresh hops. “When I get hops for Wet, I have something very definite in mind, it’s not like going to the farmers’ market and making a salad out of whatever you find.”
At the specialty Twin Cities beer stores Four Firkins, owner Jason Alvey can’t even get local fresh hopped beers into the coolers before they walk out the door. “People go bananas for them, and rightly so,” says Alvey. “It’s a very rare and limited treat. They’re extremely floral and vibrant, very labor-intensive and expensive for the brewers to make, and people seem to be aware of this. As soon as they’re released they fly out the door. When Surly Wet lands we have people waiting for the trucks to arrive. Whoever does it well will have plenty of potential customers.”
So what is the Minnesota hops boom, really? Is it the seed of a giant future? Is it a mad fad of collective optimism? No one knows. But this much is sure: “All the hops in the United States could fit in the Denver Airport; they could fit in less than half of the 94 loop,” explains Charlie Rohwer. A small corn farm in southern Minnesota is 500 acres, a thousand acres is common. “But if Minnesota had even 500 acres of hops,” says Rohwer, up from the current 20 or so, “it would completely transform our brewing culture.”