Beer Man

Growing Hops Industry Helps Ska Brewing Make New All-Colorado Beer

Colorado brewers are a proud bunch, proud of their beer, of their profession and of their state – which is why many of them have made small batches of beer that use only ingredients made or grown in Colorado.

But finding those ingredients isn't easy. There's only one independent grain malter here – and although there are several dozen hops growers, most of them are very small. Not only that, but until recently, those growers could only supply whole hops cones coming directly off of the bines rather than pelletized hops, a condensed version that brewers use in the majority of their beers.

That changed this year, though, when Ska Brewing in Durango struck a deal with Simply Grown Hops LLC in Palisade, which owns the first pelletizing machine on the Western Slope, where most of Colorado's hops are grown.

They'll use the hops to make a new pale ale called Hop Ivy, which will be the first beer made with all-Colorado ingredients that will also be 1) packaged – in cans; 2) available year-round; 3) available statewide; and 4) produced by a craft brewer.

Several breweries, like Odell, Wynkoop and our Mutual Friend, make seasonal beers with all-Colorado ingredients. Others make all-Colorado beers that are available most of the time, but which aren't packaged, or are only sold in certain parts of the state. AC Golden, a division of Coors, was the first brewer to package an all-Colorado beer, Colorado Native, year-round, but since the company is part of Coors, many people don't consider it to be a craft brewer, including the Brewers Association.

Perhaps more important than those very specific distinctions, however, is that the beer will be available because of the pelletizing machine. “The hops were always the big question mark when it comes to Colorado beers, so having that available, we really wanted to pursue that with them,” says Ska spokeswoman Kristen Muraro.

Pelletizers extract the sticky resins and vegetal matter from the hop cones and condenses it all into small pellets. Brewers know what they are getting when they buy hop pellets, and they know how to work with them. But pelletizers are expensive, which means most small farmers can't afford them.

The previous owner of Simply Grown was able to acquire one last year – a Lawson Mills machine that can handle 250 pounds per hour – but had trouble making it work. Those owners sold their farm, along with the machinery, to the new owners this year, the Fuller family, who have been growing peaches for three generations. The Fullers tested the machine and were able to make it work well enough to strike the partnership with Ska.

Buying the farm made sense to the Fullers since it is located right next to one of their peach-growing properties. They harvested four acres of Chinook hops and two acres of Nugget this year, says spokeswoman Natasha Hickman. “We will probably plant some additional acreage in the spring,” she adds.

And the Fullers may pelletize hops for other hops growers next year as well, which would be a boon to the Western Slope, says Ron Godin, an agronomist and hops expert with Colorado State University. “The lack of a pelletizer wasn't stopping us,” he says about the Colorado hops industry. “It was just restricting our market.”

About 80 percent of Colorado's hops are purchased by AC Golden, which ships them to the Pacific Northwest to be pelletized. Most of the rest are sold fresh in cone form to brewers who use them only in fresh-hopped beers.

A few had been taking their hops to a business in Longmont that owns the only other pelletizer in Colorado, Godin says. “Now with these pelletizers and new growers with new acreage. I think that will work well to help extend the market in this state, if not beyond.”

There are about 100 acres of hops being farmed in Colorado right now, with more planned for next year, he adds.

Ska's Beer, Hop Ivy, will be based on its fresh-hopped ale, Hoperation Ivy, and the brewery is hoping to make sixty barrels a month over the next year or two, says Muraro. The malt comes from the Colorado Malting Company in Alamosa, the yeast from the Brewing Science Institute in Woodland Park, and the cans were manufactured by Ball Packaging in Golden.

“It's such a unique opportunity to showcase all the great businesses we have in Colorado and to celebrate the state,” Muraro says.

Hop Ivy will be available on draft at various places in the state starting next week, and should be released in cans after January 1, 2016. It will only be sold in Colorado.
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Jonathan Shikes is a Denver native who writes about business and beer for Westword.
Contact: Jonathan Shikes

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