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Who's keeping local hop farmers in business?

Who's keeping local hop farmers in business?

A single-engine Piper Comanche has room in its cargo hold for about a dozen big burlap sacks. Try to stuff in any more, and you'll crush the precious green blooms inside the bags.

But on this warm day in mid-August, two small planes — the Piper and a Cessna 180 — are enough to transport 22 sacks of just-picked hop cones from a mesa-top airstrip in Paonia to Longmont's Vance Brand Municipal Airport, where a van is waiting to rush them to the boiling kettles at Left Hand Brewing Company.

The pilots, a couple of tap-room regulars named Matt Schwall and Rick Spears, will use any excuse to get their wings in the air, and beer is a pretty good excuse. The two have been making the farm-to-mug flight since 2008, when Left Hand first began using Colorado-grown hops in a seasonal beer called Warrior IPA.

See also: Slide show: Hop farming in Colorado

A "fresh-hop" or "wet-hop" beer, Warrior belongs to a style that hundreds of breweries across the country make and release in the late summer or early fall. To create it, the brewers add whole hop cones to the beer rather than the pelletized version, which is what breweries use for most of their beers.

The goal is to capture the bright, field-fresh flavors of the hops, flavors that begin to fade from the yellow lupulin oils in the plant within 24 hours of being harvested. The planes mean Left Hand can get its hops from Glen Fuller's Rising Sun Farms in Paonia to the brewery in Longmont in just a few hours.

Although fresh-hop beers make up only a tiny percentage of the craft-beer market, they are popular: Two festivals in Denver this fall will be dedicated to them, and the Great American Beer Festival created a separate category for them for the first time this year.

Prior to 2008, when the hop-farming industry got off the ground in Colorado, Left Hand and other breweries overnighted their hops from Washington state's Yakima Valley, where 75 percent of the nation's hop crop is grown. But this year, at least three dozen Colorado breweries made fresh-hop beers using hops grown in this state.

Colorado is a natural fit for hop-farming. The hardy plant loves sunny weather and can withstand cold winter temperatures, while the dry climate helps ward off disease. And hops, with their heady aromas and feel, are the sexiest beer ingredients in a state with more than 160 beer makers and a proud brewing tradition.

But seeding the industry here has been more difficult than expected, despite the early and eager support of craft brewers: Hops are an expensive crop to start out, and breaking even can take six or seven years of hard work. "This is frivolous and it's fun," says Joe Schiraldi, Left Hand's vice president for brewing operations. But it wouldn't make practical or economic sense to use whole hop cones in other beers because of the amount Left Hand would require. "Rising Sun is one of the few farms that grow enough so that I can get the 1,000 pounds I need for Warrior," he notes, and the brewery is only making about 300 barrels of the beer, which isn't a lot compared to its other brands.

That's why many of Colorado's hop farmers rely on an unlikely hero: MillerCoors. AC Golden, a MillerCoors brand incubator, buys 90 percent of the state's hop crop for its Colorado Native lager, and pays good money to do so.

Fuller is selling most of Rising Sun's hops to AC Golden this year. And although he believes he could have sold 100 percent of his crop even without AC Golden, he's grateful for its business. "Coors is great," says Fuller, who has affixed a Colorado Native banner to his hops-picking machine.

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Hops have been growing in Colorado since at least the 1860s. That's when entrepreneurs following the Gold Rush figured out that thirsty miners needed beer after long days of digging ore, and broke prospectors needed ale to drown their sorrows.

Legend has it that in Central City and Idaho Springs, the hops that grow wild over the hillsides were planted by nineteenth-century locals who sold them to beer makers. Central City alone had six breweries during its peak mining days, including the Jacob Mack Brewery; today, Dostal Alley Brewpub in Central City makes a beer from these wild hops that's named for Mack.

But the modern hops industry didn't take root until 2002, when researchers with Colorado State University's Specialty Crops Program began studying whether hop farming could be commercially viable in Colorado. They planted different varieties to see which ones thrived, analyzed hop diseases and polled brewery interest in local hops. In 2007, their efforts got a boost when hop prices spiked worldwide after a shortage that was due partly to poor yields in Europe and Australia, as well as a warehouse fire in Washington state that destroyed 4 percent of the U.S. crop.

That presented an opportunity for farmers on the Western Slope, recalls Ron Godin, a CSU agronomist and the man who has been evangelizing about hops since 2002. In 2006, only two acres of hops were put into production in Colorado. But by 2008, more than fifty acres had been planted, primarily in Delta County. There are now 140 to 150 acres of hops planted across roughly twenty farms in Colorado, from Paonia to Longmont, from Arvada to Montrose, with another fifty acres planned for 2013.

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12 comments
CityStarBrewing
CityStarBrewing

@ColoBeerMan Great background info on Colorado grown hops! We currently have an IPA on tap featuring fresh cascade hops from Masonville, CO

sethotron
sethotron

@ColoBeerMan what are the two fresh-hop festivals you mention coming in the fall?

ColoBeerMan
ColoBeerMan

@sethotron One will be at @FallingRockTap in November. The other is here: http://t.co/1gC80AgN

FallingRockTap
FallingRockTap

@ColoBeerMan the @FallingRockTap event is having its 8th Annual Wet Hop Fest on Oct. 7th. Same week we've always done it.

FallingRockTap
FallingRockTap

@suitejaclynmary do not see anywhere on our website where it says 10/20.

suitejaclynmary
suitejaclynmary

@suitejaclynmary @FallingRockTap Actually, looks like your site's been updated to say 10/20 as well, which I assume is accurate. Can't wait!

suitejaclynmary
suitejaclynmary

@FallingRockTap Deschutes' website says Oct 20th, and you guys had it on Saturday the 15th last year. Can you clarify? Thx

ColoBeerMan
ColoBeerMan

@FallingRockTap that's right. Thanks!

sethotron
sethotron

@ColoBeerMan oh man..thats exciting!

 
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