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A homebrewer since 1999 — the same year he took up flying — Schwall is an engineer at Seagate Technology in Longmont and hangs out at Left Hand's tap room at least once a week. He got the hops-delivery gig four years ago after meeting Schiraldi at a hop seminar that Fuller was offering at Rising Sun.

"I said, 'Joe, you know I could fly some of those hops back for you if you want,'" he remembers. The next year, Schiraldi took him up on it.

Today, Schwall and Spears help bag the hops after the Wolf Harvester is done with the separation process. Once they've filled 22 bags — about 350 pounds of hops — they load them into the back of Left Hand's van and head to the airstrip. Schiraldi and Lennert will put the remaining 650 pounds in that van later in the day and make the drive back to Denver.

Matt Schwall is one of two pilots who fly the hops back to Longmont.
Matt Schwall is one of two pilots who fly the hops back to Longmont.

The aroma of the precious cargo fills the cockpits of both planes as they lift off into the sky around 1:30 p.m. "This is fun," Schwall says. "I like being a part of this."

******

Hauling hops can be fun — but hop farming is hard work. "I thought I had done my due diligence before I got into it, but there was quite a bit I missed," says David Pinnt, who planted his three and a half acres of Cascade and Chinook hops in 2009 near the town of Palisade. "The planting and building and growing and watering is the easy part. The hardest part is the harvesting. You have to have a machine. Otherwise, how are you going to do it?"

So Pinnt, like Fuller, invested in a Wolf Harvester. "Now there are several other small farms who are counting on me to do their harvesting as well," he says. "Probably next year, I'll be running it 24 hours a day. Hopefully, I will get a return on it in a few years.... I think a lot of people are getting into it for the glory of it. I jumped in with both feet because I am looking several years down the road."

His farm, Palisade Organic, will sell most of its hops to AC Golden for $15 a pound; it will sell a third variety, Crystal hops, for $10 a pound to Amicas Pizza and Microbrewery in Salida, which will use it for a fresh-hop beer. "AC Golden has been a lifesaver for me," says Pinnt. "I can't say enough about them."

And he's not the only farmer grateful for the company's support. "Without AC Golden right now, I think everyone who has jumped into hops would be scrambling," Pinnt says. "There's a big difference between market price and what AC Golden is giving us. Without their support, the industry wouldn't be feasible."

CSU's Godin sees things a little differently. "Yes, Coors is pumping a bunch of money into it, but if they weren't buying, I think we could sell it anyway. It would just be a lot more work," he says. "They are giving growers an easy outlet, but I don't think it's fair to say they are single-handedly keeping the industry alive."

Still, Godin understands the challenges of getting into hop farming. "I tell people it's a lot of work. Imagine a job that is the most work you have ever done. This is three times harder than that, even for people who have farmed before," he says. "Every spring, you have to prune all your plants; then you have to manually put in two strings per plant, at 1,100 to 1,200 plants per acre. And I wouldn't go less than two acres. I'd probably go closer to ten. Then you have to train two or three bines per cord.

"Weed control is absolutely critical," he continues. "They suck your yield up like nobody's business. For harvest, you'll need a crew of some sort. Folks with ten acres hire a crew of six people for three weeks to a month. Altogether, your initial capital investment is probably going to be $20,000 to $25,000 per acre, counting labor."

But at $15 a pound, he adds, "once you get into full production, it looks pretty good, and once you sell your sixth- or seventh-year crop, you are in the black."

Assuming that AC Golden is still buying hops at $15 a pound by then.

Even if AC Golden isn't, Godin thinks Colorado's craft brewers will pay that price simply for the cachet of making their own Colorado-grown beers. "They understand that if they pay $7 to $8 a pound, we won't be able to grow hops here," he says.

The real key to the future of hop farming in Colorado, though, is a piece of equipment that no one in this state has: a pelletizer.

Pelletizers extract all the good stuff from the hop cones — the sticky resins and vegetal matter — and condense it into small pellets. Brewers know exactly what they are getting when they buy hop pellets, and they know how to work with them.

AC Golden uses only pelletized hops, and since none of the in-state growers have pelletizing equipment, the company is now sending the hops for its Colorado Native by refrigerated truck to Washington, where they are pelletized and then sent back to Colorado, which adds to that $15-a-pound tab.

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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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