Say the word “hydroponics” in Colorado, and only one industry comes to mind. But pot's not the crop that Colin Clark is focused on at his indoor growhouse in Fort Collins. Instead, Clark is planning to use hydroponics for our state's other favorite vice: craft beer.
On Sunday, City Star Brewing in Berthoud will tap Hydro-Pony Express HYPA, a fresh-hopped beer brewed with huge Centennial and Columbus hop cones that were grown inside Clark's 5,000-square-foot greenhouse at Hyrdo Hop Farms. It may be the first-ever beer made by a commercial brewer with greenhouse-born hops. It's certainly the earliest fresh-hop beer to hit the draft lines this year.
“They are bright green, sticky, and they smell great. They don't have any sunburn on the leaves that you get from the outdoor stuff. They are the perfect hops,” says City Star co-owner John Way, who met Clark last year when the grower came into the brewery to pitch his unusual idea.
Clark, who grew up in the small town of Kersey, founded Hydro Hop Farms two years ago, after having run a business making products for the greenhouse industry. Before that, he'd earned a degree in hydroponic greenhouse cultivation from the University of Arizona, one of the only schools in the country to offer the specialty program. While many of his classmates there were interested in pursuing careers in the burgeoning marijuana industry, Clark had been an avid and award-winning home brewer and thought his mission lay elsewhere.
“Hops in Colorado, near my home town, seemed like a perfect fit. A lot of people said hops won't grow indoors,” he recalls, since they need an unusual combination of sunshine and space (hops grow straight upward, often to thirty feet or higher). “But we were able to overcome that. Most hydroponic growing operations are limited to tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and things that have been proven to work. I wanted to show that hops could work, too, and that it was economically feasible."
Now in its second year, Hydro Hop Farms will harvest five varieties of hops from 2,000 plants that are packed into about one-tenth of an acre inside the greenhouse.
While his startup costs were probably higher than those of a traditional hop farmer, like the ones on Colorado's Western Slope, Clark says the payoff is higher as well. That's because he can fit more plants into the same amount of space. His operation is immune to climate conditions like storms and frost, and he can manipulate the nutrients in his soil. He can also start growing long before traditional soil farmers and begin harvesting earlier, as well. As for the size of the plants, Clark says he uses an indoor technique that results in the hops plants growing at a 45-degree angle.
And the hop cones themselves have turned out beautifully — large and packed with the oils that brewers rely on for aroma and flavor. “They are in this perfect environment and in perfect growing conditions, and they have the perfect oil content,” Way says. “We are looking forward to doing at least one more fresh hop beer before the season is over.”
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Most of the brewers who have used Clark's hops (Tommyknocker used some last year) are making wet-hopped, or fresh-hopped, beers — beers that use hops that have been harvested less than 24 hours earlier. The goal of this style is to impart a fresh, almost vegetable-like flavor into the beer. But because of this, brewers have to buy five times as many hops as they would for a normal beer, which is what helps Hydro Hop Farms make money.
“The hops are more expensive than normal hops, especially dried hops,” Way says. “This is the most expensive beer we have ever made.” But it's also a specialty product, and Way says he plans to charge $5 for a ten-ounce pour rather than the typical pint glass.
Clark is hoping to sell the rest of his hops to other local brewers for their own fresh-hopped beers, and he has several who are interested. “Demand is definitely outweighing supply this year,” he says. “But we don't want to grow so much that we instantly flood the market with our hops. We still need to tweak some things to make sure that the quality is good consistently. But we'll probably add a new greenhouse, or maybe two, by the end of the season next year.”
City Star, which was founded in 2012, used more than thirty pounds of Columbus and Centennial hops from Hydro for its seven-barrel batch of Hydro-Pony; all of it was added within hours of being harvested. An additional twelve pounds of Centennial hops will be added directly to the finished beer after it is brewed. The beer will be tapped at noon on Saturday, August 22.