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Thursday, July 3,2014

The Magical Ingredient

Hops farms are struggling to keep up with the growth of craft brewing

By Hudson Lindenberger
Oskar Blues Hops and Heifers Farm

Last year, thirsty Americans enjoyed almost 9.5 million barrels of beer. That’s a lot of beer! Every time one of them cracked a can or popped the top on their favorite brewski, they unknowingly paid homage to the side effects of Humulus lupulus. The amount of bitterness, aroma, and, believe it or not, antibacterial properties in most beers is directly linked to this hardy plant. Wondering what this magic botanical is? It’s hops.

Anyone that has visited the beer aisle of a liquor store in the last five years won’t be surprised that Colorado is a leader in beer production. With Coors, Budweiser, and over 200 craft breweries located here, the demand for hops is high, and hop farms are multiplying like bunnies across the state to help meet this demand.

“What we are growing on our farm is a tiny fraction of the amount of hops we use each year at Oscar Blues,” says Geoff Hess, manager at the five-yearold Oscar Blues Hops and Heifers farm. “Last year we produced about 2,000 pounds of hops on our two-acre plot; we use over 100,000 pounds a year. Like most brewing operations, we use commercial hop pellets. The fresh hops we produce allow our brewers to experiment, to have fun. Will we ever produce enough hops to fill all of our needs? No, we do this to create something unique.”

Growing hops is a labor-intensive venture that requires hours of labor in the spring, long days in the summer, and large picking parties at harvest. Andrew Voss, owner of Voss Hop Farms in Arvada, sums it up.

“There is an old German saying that sums up hop farming perfectly, a hop yard likes to see its master every day. For my one acre farm I spend 30 hours a week in the field, that’s on top of my full time job at Oracle.”

With the dramatic surge in craft breweries during the last decade, hops farms are struggling to keep up. This is driving the price of hops higher and, consequently, the price of beer too.

So can a small grower get rich on hops?

“If you can grow your farm to ten acres it can become commercially viable,” says Mark LaRusso, owner of LaRusso Hop Farms in Denver. “Any smaller than that and you struggle to break even because the labor costs are substantial.”

Long hours and minimal profits might make you wonder why more farms are appearing across the state.

“For the love of farming and good beer,” says Aaron Melin, owner of Front Range Hop Company in Longmont. “If you talk to most of the growers, they usually have some farming background and they all love beer.”

Front Range opened this year to fill a need holding back growers — pelletizing and packaging hops. “Smaller growers can’t afford a pelletizer, hopefully ours helps more farms open and grow.”

So unlike hops’ more famous cousin Cannabis — they are from the same family — these growers are looking at a longer road to profitability but one that puts a smile on beer drinker’s faces, just without the munchies.

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com

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