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Those farms include Rising Sun, Misty Mountain Hop Farm in Olathe, San Juan Hop Farms in Montrose, Hippie Chicks Hops in Palisade and Jack Rabbit Hill in Hotchkiss. The Oskar Blues brewery in Longmont also has its own hop farm, where it leads tours and makes its own fresh-hop beers.

Altogether, Colorado's farms produced about 50,000 pounds of hops in 2012 — up from about 17,000 last year. Most of those were harvested over the past three weeks. Craft brewers bought about 10 percent of that yield; AC Golden bought the rest.

Hidden deep inside MillerCoors's massive plant in Golden, AC Golden is run like a small, experimental microbrewery, but with the resources and connections of a multinational conglomerate. Created in 2007, shortly before Coors and Miller merged, AC Golden has tinkered with all kinds of beer, from hoppy lagers to German dortmunders, from Belgian-style sour and wild ales to traditional Octoberfests. But its primary mission right now is the production of Colorado Native, an easy-drinking lager sold only in-state.

"The way the whole thing started was that we had a notion to brew a beer made with all-Colorado ingredients," says Glenn Knippenberg, the amiable and fiercely proud president of AC Golden. The first part was easy: Rocky Mountain water, of course, and a yeast strain developed in Golden. Finding the malt was tougher. Coors contracts with hundreds of Western farmers who grow its Moravian barley, but Colorado barley was getting mixed with barley from several other states. So AC Golden went to the malthouse chief and asked if he could separate out some of the barley grown in the San Luis Valley.

The last ingredient was the most difficult. "Our hops procurement people said we were out of luck," Knippenberg recalls. "There wasn't much hops being grown in Colorado, and what was there was being purchased by small brewers, and not on the scale we were thinking." So AC Golden grew some of its own in a greenhouse and later on a Coors family farm, and bought the rest from Washington state — which meant it couldn't yet claim 100 percent Colorado on its label.

"We also put the word out that we would like to buy Colorado hops. But we know that the infrastructure is expensive and there is a fair amount of expense just to get into the business," he notes. "You have to put up the trellises and invest or rent or buy a picker, buy or build a baler, install a drip system. So we made a conscious decision that even though we could buy hops from Yakima, Washington, for $4 a pound, we were willing to wildly overpay farmers in Colorado to grow these hops. We wanted to way overpay so they could justify the infrastructure and create a hops industry in Colorado."

Last year AC Golden was able to buy enough Colorado hops — about 12,000 pounds — to change the label on Colorado Native to "brewed with 100 percent Colorado ingredients." This year, AC Golden contracted with fourteen Colorado growers and paid about $15 a pound for the three varieties it needs: Chinook, Centennial and Cascade.

"We are in this to find something that the consumer wants to buy and produce it for them," Knippenberg says. "We think we're doing something special. Is it worth it? Absolutely. You might ask that same question to the hops farmers."

******

The day begins at about 9 a.m., when Left Hand marketing director Chris Lennert and Joe Schiraldi wake up inside the tents they've pitched about 100 feet from the eight-acre hop field at Rising Sun. Together with Fuller and his crew of seven workers, they ride on the back of a tractor-pulled flatbed through one of the rows of planted hops and swing machetes to slice down the thirty-foot-tall climbing bines — one cut at the top and one at the bottom — and then pile them up on the trailer.

"Listen, one person holds the bine and another person cuts," Fuller shouts back at the workers, most of whom haven't done this before. "And you've got to move fast!"

When the row is finished, the crew rides back to a small grouping of sheds where a gray, tank-sized machine called a Wolf Harvester is waiting to separate the fragrant hop cones from the stems and bines and spit them out the other side.

Fuller primarily grows Cascade and Chinook hops, two of the most popular varieties in the United States, and two of the three kinds that AC Golden uses in Colorado Native. He picked the Chinook a few days earlier, and it is now packaged in bales and drying in a shed next to the apples, peaches and plums that Fuller also grows or stores for other farmers. AC Golden will send a refrigerated truck for the hops in a few days.

Most of the remainder of Fuller's crop — about 1,000 pounds of Cascade hops — is going to Left Hand, which will use it to brew Warrior IPA.

That's why Schwall and Spears are here. The two men took off from Vance Brand in hazy but nearly wind-free conditions around the same time Schiraldi and Lennert were waking up. They flew west over the Continental Divide and then southwest to Paonia, landing at a tiny airport located on a small mesa that juts up from the valley.

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13 comments
HydroHopFarmsLLC
HydroHopFarmsLLC

Great read, however you mention that Lupulin oils fade 24hrs after harvesting.  That is not true, in fact lupulin quality will increase as the hops age or "cure".  Harvesting a late "brown" cone and then letting it properly cure will provide much higher essential oils and aromas then wet hops.  Wet hops do however begin to dry after 24hrs of harvesting, thus you are not getting the fresh "grassy" flavor that are unique to wet hops. Wet Hops do not offer a beer more lupulin or oils rather just a different raw flavor when used wet.  Cheers!

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?

FallingRockTap
FallingRockTap

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

sethotron
sethotron

@ColoBeerMan oh man..thats exciting!

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!

 
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