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.
Left Hand Brewing Company
See also: Slide show: Hop farming in Colorado
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
But pelletizers are pricy, too: They cost a minimum of $200,000 to $250,000, which is a little beyond the reach of the average four-acre Colorado hop farm. "That's what we need," says Godin, who has been working on strategies for purchasing a pelletizer that the state's hops growers could share. Fuller believes he has a bead on one as well, possibly for as soon as next year.
Randy Flores, who helped found San Juan Hop Farms in Montrose six years ago, thinks that MillerCoors could buy a pelletizer — and maybe start its own hop farm, too. He knows the company has considered it. "We were approached by the hops-materials people at MillerCoors. They told us that Colorado Native is popular and growing and asked if we wanted to grow with them," says Flores, who left San Juan a year ago and now works with some Washington growers. "But it never got to that point."
"We do not want to be in the hop-farming business," confirms Knippenberg. "We just want to help the hop-farming market, and we want to help it down the road. If Colorado Native grows, it is something you can count on. We are up 48 percent year-to-date, so that means our hops needs are up 48 percent."
In the meantime, Flores is hoping to give Colorado hop farmers a boost. "They are struggling, and they are going to struggle for a while," he says. "There are some farmers who want out and some who are passionate, but they are getting really tired."
So he's working with the Colorado Brewers Guild to promote fresh-hop beers, a fresh-hop festival this September and a fresh-hop day — not just in Colorado, but in other states with small hop farms. The idea came about four years ago when Steve Indrehus, the head brewer at Tommyknocker Brewing in Idaho Springs, was picking hops at San Juan Farms. He suggested having a fresh-hop day, similar to what French winemakers do when they release their beaujolais nouveau.
"Originally we wanted to find a specific day, like the last Thursday in September, but this year, the way it is setting up, it will be more like a three-week festival," Flores says. "But I'd like it to grow, and I've been promoting the Hop Nouveau Day concept around the country to states like New York, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Idaho."
The hour-and-twenty-minute return flight from Paonia to Longmont takes Schwall and Spears northeast over Marble, Basalt and Eagle, where the planes rise to about 12,500 feet to clear the mountain passes on the way. After crossing I-70, they continue northeast past Kremmling and Granby before descending over Eldora and Boulder and into Longmont.
"Boy, this is God's country," Spears says over the radio.
"It's a religious experience," Schwall responds.
The two pilots use GPS, iPads and familiar landmarks to navigate their way across Colorado — but they could just as easily use a map of Colorado's breweries.
There are more than 160 of them now, with new breweries opening at a rate of about two per month across the state; Schwall and Spears fly over half a dozen before they even enter the airspace over Boulder County, home to at least twenty breweries.
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After landing, a crew of brewers arrives to unload the sacks from both planes and drive them to Left Hand's compound on Boston Avenue. Like other Colorado beer-makers, Left Hand has grown so much over the past few years that it barely has enough space to make all the beer it can sell. In fact, because of time and capacity problems, Left Hand had to skip making Warrior last year in favor of its bigger brands.
But a recent expansion put Warrior, a local favorite, back on the menu this season, and the brewers are greeted with smiles from their comrades — and from a few drinkers in the tap room as well — as they return from the airport.
Less than eight hours after they were picked, the hops will be added to the beer kettle.
That's all in a day's work for Schwall and Spears, who grab a pair of stools at the bar and join some of the other regulars for a cold one.