By: Robin Dohrn-Simpson
Throughout the U.S., interest in hop farming has expanded beyond the Pacific Northwest. Farming entrepreneurs from California to New York love beer and want to try their hand at growing local hops. They want to discover what varieties will thrive in their soil and withstand regional weather conditions all while creating a local hop source for brewers.
What does it take to grow hops? Growing requires three key components: full sun, access to water for irrigation, and moderate-to-well-draining soil. If this is true in the Pacific Northwest, why can’t regions throughout the country also be prosperous?
That’s precisely what Eric Sannerud and his partner Ben Boo of Mighty Axe Hops in Foley, Minnesota asked themselves.
“There’s really no reason not to grow hops in Minnesota,” Sannerud said. “The cold winters aren’t a challenge for hops. The plant’s perennial structure is deep underground. The plant dies back in the winter. There is nothing necessary to protect it from harsh winters. It springs back to life after the snows melt. The difference in growing in Minnesota is that in Oregon, Washington and Idaho it’s more desert-like. The Pacific Northwest has a longer and hotter growing season, but in Minnesota, there’s more humidity and water.”
In today’s culinary climate the “buy local” movement was also a consideration for them. “We care about where our food and hops come from. It’s important to have local ingredients. We also want to distinguish ourselves from other regions,” Sannerud said.
Eric March and family of Star B Ranch and Hop Farm in Ramona, California, already had a strong buffalo business on 1200 acres. In 2008, Marsh and his wife, Amie, decided to expand and include a hop farm on the property. Since then, they’ve become the largest commercial hop farm in San Diego County.
“I’m an agriculture man at heart,” March said. “I was exploring growing grapes in a newly created wine region outside of San Diego until my wife started researching hops. We discovered that with the growing craft brewing scene in San Diego there is a substantial demand for local hops. We looked at the temperature, soil, sunlight and air needed to grow hops. Although San Diego is coastal, where we live is 30 miles inland. It gets very hot here. We have loose, sandy, loamy soil that is well-drained. We have wells for our water. So we tried it. We currently have three acres planted with Chinook, Cascade, Amalia, Hallertauer and Neomexicanus.”
Like so many other growers, March and his employees taught themselves how to plant and grow hops. “In fact, one of our first years I kept seeing hops cones on the ground and thought my crew was wasting valuable hops,” he said. “It turned out the deer were chewing on the plants and spitting out the hops.” They’ve used that to their advantage now. To battle mildew, it’s recommended not to have greenery right on the ground, but three feet up. “The deer get to eat the base leaves, and since they don’t like the hops, they leave it alone.”
Additionally, throughout the years the Star B team learned how to make the task of harvesting easier and more profitable.
“Before, it was very expensive and labor intensive to have a profitable hops business. Hand harvesting and hand processing of hops, while fun, was extremely tedious and time-consuming. This made it hard to provide larger quantities of hops fast enough to our customers. This led us to purchase a Wolf Hop Harvester from Germany,” said March. “We can [now] harvest up to 170 bines an hour.”
Terroir: the Sense of Place
Terroir is a common word in the wine world and now is being used in craft brewing as well. According to Ann Van Holle, Head of Research and Development at De Proefbrouwerij, a Flemish brewery in Belgium: “Terroir in connection to beer refers to the special characteristics of a region for the cultivation of hops, comprising growing conditions (such as soil composition, nitrogen, moisture) and climatologic conditions as well as biotic variables (such as microorganisms, managing practices). Terroir may have a significant influence on regional hop properties including aroma, flavor, bitter substances and longevity, affecting the brewing values of the cultivated hops.”
Mighty Axe Hops’ Sannerud told Beverage Master Magazine, “It’s important for different regions to have something that sets them apart. We think Minnesota soil and climate create a certain flavor of hops.”
For Star B, the water is what makes a difference. “Our hard water here accentuates the ‘hoppiness,’” said March. “Basically, it pops the hops. People also tell us our hops are citrusy.”
Mighty Axe Hops has received a grant to pilot a two-year program with the Department of Food Science at the University of Minnesota in conjunction with Dr. Zata Vickers, a sensory scientist, on hops terroir. “We want to see if terroir in hops is a thing. There’s a lot of interest in this and quite a few studies, but nothing conclusive,” Sannerud said. “By bringing [together] Mighty Axe’s understanding of hops, the world-class researchers at the University of Minnesota, and St. Croix Sensory’s history of sensory analysis, we are well positioned to do it.”
The study will be conducted mostly through sensory perception, championed by St Croix Sensory. According to their website, “St. Croix Sensory is a laboratory dedicated to practicing state-of-the-art sensory evaluation and to advancing the science of sensory perception.”
Chris VanDongen of the University of Minnesota told Beverage Master, “The University of Minnesota’s Department of Food Service has provided information on how to set up a descriptive analysis panel to measure hops aroma and flavor sensory attributes to the lab. Descriptive analysis is a sensory method where the attributes of products are identified and measured precisely by a trained panel. This type of analysis delivers objective and detailed quantitative information about a product’s sensory attributes.”
Subjects participating in the study have been trained as “noses” to taste and smell hops, according to Sannerud. These “noses” will taste and smell hops from a variety of locations and determine if there are distinct differences between soil types, growing regions and temperature variances, to name a few.
“Aroma and scent are subjective,” Sannerud said. “Our premise is that, like grapes and cheese, hops grown in different places have unique characteristics due to where they were grown.”
By early 2019 the initial results will be in and ready for a follow-up. Sannerud and Boo are excited to see how their hops hold up to those from the Pacific Northwest.
The partners at Mighty Axe Hops hope to create and grow a strong hops industry in Minnesota that will assist Minnesota breweries in making their beer stand out.
“It’s important for us to have something that sets our state apart from other states,” Sannerud said. “Many smart people are sitting back and watching us; waiting to see if we’re successful; waiting to see if there’s a viable industry there. They’re questioning if there is enough demand and if we can make a go of it. For me, this is long term. I dream of creating and growing a new industry here. I want to build a co-op structure where we would have technical assistance and support with marketing. We want to work cooperatively.”
Star B’s March has similar goals and would like to expand his acreage to include several hop varietals. March also wants to gain the experience and knowledge to grow hops and brew beer on his property. The industry is so new that there are no regulations in place for growing and brewing at the same location. March is working directly with county officials to help build a solid agricultural plan. “Just like the wineries that grow grapes, process them, make their wine and sell their wine at the same location. That’s what I want.”