The female Humulus lupulus, or hop plant, is something that all beer drinkers encounter every time they indulge in a cold one. And in Colorado, which was ranked fifth in craft breweries per capita for 2012, hops are not a rarity — in beer form. The crop itself, though, seems to be few and far between, with more than 77 percent of U.S. hop production coming from Washington state, according to the 2012 National Hop Report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Within the last decade, however, farmers on the Western Slope and Front Range have seized the opportunity to cultivate this cash crop, and are slowly but surely finding their footing to produce greater yields of the unique vine.
“There are all these craft breweries out here, they must need some hops, so a lot of people are jumping on it,” says Geoff Hess of the Oskar Blues Hops & Heifers farm in Longmont. “It’s an alternative agricultural crop that’s not been widely grown here in Colorado … now everybody wants to get into hops.”
However, Hess says farmers face some difficulty in learning the ins and outs of cultivating such a unique crop, especially in Colorado.
“In Colorado it’s tough to grow anything because of a variety of reasons,” says Hess. “First, the soil quality is really poor, poor drainage, high clay, not a lot of organic matter, but we can amend that to make it work because we have more mild winters, no threat of mildew, lots of sunlight and the ability to use irrigation water for a drip system.”
The initial process of planting the crops is no easy task, according to hop growers, especially because they are often grown using complex trellis systems that are 12 to 18 feet high and must be established before the hop rhizomes are planted.
However, once established, hop bines (similar to vines) can live for 25 to 30 years.
And Michelle and Ron Yovich, the owners of Ella J Farms in Longmont, are extremely grateful that these perennials don’t require yearly planting.
“We were down on our hands and knees literally planting 10,000 baby hop plants, just with the help of our family,” says Michelle Yovich.
The Parker-based couple established Ella J Farms in 2011 and went into the 10-acre project with wide eyes and limited agricultural knowledge. They wanted to get into agriculture and decided on hops because of the booming beer scene in Colorado, according to Michelle Yovich.
“It’s probably a little big to start with,” says Michelle Yovich, referring to the 10-acre former sod farm in Longmont that their hops call home. “It’s a really labor-intensive crop, but we did it, and now we’re here.”
Once the hops are grown, hop farmers in Colorado face additional difficulty when it comes to harvesting the hop cones and readying them for use by breweries. Harvesting requires specialized machines for picking hop cones off the vine called Wolf Pickers, and readying the hops for use requires further expensive machinery.
“I think there’s a lack of understanding that, growing a hop and bringing it to ripeness and production and having it as a whole cone, then there’s a big gap to getting that into beer,” says Hess.
While some breweries use wet or fresh hops in craft brews as well as dry hops, larger producers require pelletized hops. These hops are dried and condensed into a pellet that can be easily used in large brew batches and does not interfere with brewery machine function, according to Hess. However, the pellet can only be produced using a refrigerated pelletizer machine, and Colorado remains behind the curve in that regard.
“We don’t even have a pelletizer in Colorado yet. I mean, we just started to get Wolf Pickers,” says Hess.
While Oskar Blues relies on its own hops in wet hop brews, which use the fresh hop cone just as it is, Ella J Farms provides hops for Coors’ AC Golden Colorado Native brew, which requires hops in the pelletized form.
“We dry [our hops] and we bale them and we deliver them to Coors,” says Ron Yovich. “They take them in the bales and ship them up to Washington and have them pelletized and then shipped back here in pellet form to use in their brewing process.”
“We’re in a place right now where there are not quite enough farmers to make [a pelletizer] cost-effective, but at the same time there’s not a lot of farmers because there’s no pelletizer,” says Michelle Yovich. “So it’s sort of a catch-22.”
The couple has faced weeds, the challenges of practicing organic agriculture, hail and broken field poles in their trellis system, but remains positive and dedicated to the project, which is still in its early stages. They struggle with the idea that providing local hops to a local brewery creates such a large carbon footprint in the trip to Washington and back. They hope that as they grow, they will be able to supply their hops to local breweries for wet hop brews.
But as the Yoviches expand, another Boulder County hops grower is phasing out his production of the crop. Richard Andrews of the Andrews Family Farm in Boulder has been growing hops for seven years but has recently cut back the extremely laborintensive hop production on the farm in hopes of retiring. However, Andrews is well aware of the problems faced by Colorado hops growers and continues to use his equipment to aid other hops growers along the Front Range.
Trellises at Oskar Blues Hops and Heifers Farm | Photo by Camilla Sterne
“The fact is that, some small growers, they can’t really afford to go out and buy the necessary equipment,” says Andrews. “The smallest machine you can buy would cost $40,000. Cost is a real issue to a small grower, and if we can do this cooperatively and help each other out then everybody will be better off.”
Andrews, who has worked on research with Colorado State University’s Specialty Hops program to create solar drying technology and is formally trained as an engineer, also built his own harvester, akin to a Wolf Picker, using parts of a used apple sorter.
He began growing hops with his son in hopes of making a living selling the cash crop from his one-acre plot.
“We decided to grow hops because there’s such a huge and rapidly expanding beer business,” says Andrews. “You had a ready market for sure, and a market that in fact valued locally produced crops and ingredients. They were very interested in supporting local suppliers.”
Andrews is able to sell his hops to local breweries, including Upslope, Mountain Sun, Southern Sun, Wild Mountain, Pumphouse, Estes Park Brewery and others, but hasn’t achieved the income he had hoped.
“With a small acreage it’s probably not enough to make a living off of,” says Andrews. “Ten acres is probably a minimum size to be a commercial hop grower.”
But Andrews, like others, expresses a great appreciation of the hop community.
“I’ve really enjoyed working with the beer-producing and herb-company communities in Boulder,” Andrews says. “They are a friendly group of people. They are collegial; they like to help each other. They don’t view each other as cutthroat competitors.”
And Andrews’ vision that hop growers will unite as a community and share equipment is moving toward realization with the establishment of the Colorado Hop Growers Association in 2011. However, Hess sees no hope that growing Colorado breweries will ever be entirely supplied by Colorado hop growers.
“Do I see in the near future, enough hops being produced to suffice the brewery demand here?” he asks. “Probably not, I mean that’s way, way, way out there.”
But of course, hop growers remain passionate about their distinctive crop, despite, and maybe because of, its rarity in Colorado.
Michelle and Ron Yovich are still amazed that so many people who drink beer are unfamiliar with the climbing plant that provides its character and unaware that the yellow lupulin Michelle Yovich calls “gold powder” in the cone emits such a pungent and rich scent.
“I think it’s a beautiful plant,” she says. “I think it’s amazing that that little tiny bit of lupulin, that tiny little bit of yellow powder, is the whole reason that people grow it.”
As the harvest approaches within the next week or two, Hess says he’s excited about the third-year yield.
“First year sleeps, second year creeps, third year leaps.”