20 Questions: Ryan Triggs from Kansas Hop Co. Introduces Kanook to the Brewing Lingo
How long have hops been grown in Kansas Commercially?
To the best of my knowledge Kansas Hop Company was the first commercial hop farm in the state. We started building our trellis in late 2015 and had our first harvest in 2016. So, we are entering our 4th growing season. Still an extremely new industry here in Kansas.
Why Kansas? I know that the state supports a lot of agriculture, and certainly produces a lot of grain, but is there something in the climate or soil that is good for hops?
Hops prefer long days, a dry climate, and sandy soils so our conditions here in Kansas have been a bit of an obstacle. However, we are getting some unique flavor and aroma profiles from our Kansas grown hops and the support from both the breweries and consumers in our area has been incredible.
While I grew up driving through your neck of the woods between visits to family, can you describe the area of Kansas around Ottawa?
Most people that have never visited the area believe Kansas is just a completely flat desolate landscape. There is plenty of agricultural land here but our farm is located on the Eastern side of the state which also features rolling hills and woodlands.
Are there diseases or pests that you have to deal with that other regions don’t have as much of a problem with? Are there any that other areas are challenged with (downy or powdery mildew, for instance) that you don’t see?
We’ve been pretty fortunate on the pest and disease front thus far. We’ve seen a little bit of Downy over the years but no major outbreaks. Being on this side of the Rockies we haven’t noticed any Powdery up to this point but it is something we keep an eye out for.
We’ve noticed some small numbers of leaf hoppers, Japanese beetles, and armyworms on the leaves in the yard but nothing in the cones or over the economic threshold where we had to use a pesticide.
Image courtesy Kansas Hop Company; from their Instagram feed.
What got you interested in growing hops?
We had been doing some brainstorming on a specialty crop to experiment with on the farm. We’ve been craft beer fans for a long time and noticed some hops growing in barrels on the patio at a brewery in Kansas City called KC Bier Company. That was our “lightbulb moment”.
How did the process go from “We should grow hops” to “Hey! We’re growing Hops!”?
We read everything there was to find on the internet about growing hops. We also purchased some hop growing books and guides. Once we discovered there weren’t any commercial farms to visit in our vicinity we signed up for the Gorst Valley Hop Production Workshops in Wisconsin. We learned a lot there in terms of trellis construction, how to combat pests/diseases, harvesting, drying, etc... After that trip we decided to move forward with our initial test plot.
What varieties have you seen doing well in Kansas?
We’ve probably experimented with close to 15 varieties. Some of our best performers include Columbus, Chinook, Nugget, Comet, and Cascade.
At this point, I’m guessing there are a few all Kansas beers being brewed out there. Any we should check out if we get the chance?
Kansas grain being used in beer is still a relatively new concept around here. There are a few malting operations beginning to pop up and commercial brews with 100% Kansas grown ingredients will start to hit the market this year. From a hops standpoint, we may be partial, but we love the Kanook IPA brewed here in Ottawa by Not Lost Brewing. It’s a SMaSH beer using only our Chinook hops and it has tons of pineapple, passion fruit, and melon characteristics.
On your website, you talk about starting with a ‘forgotten field’. What was in the field when you started working it?
I’m sure it was farmed for commodity crops at some point long ago but it’s just been a pasture for as long as we can remember. We sent in some soil samples and were pleasantly surprised with the results. It’s proximity to our barns/water supply and gentle slope for drainage made it the perfect place for us to plant our hops.
Can you talk about the wild hops you found a bit?
We have a couple different sets of wild hops growing in our yard. We were tipped off by a bartender at a local taproom that one of their regulars had seen some hops growing along a walking trail in the suburbs outside of Kansas City. He was kind enough to supply us with the coordinates and we transplanted a few rhizomes from those plants. The other wild hops were found about 10 miles from our farm. The landowner discovered them a couple years ago and transplanted a few cuttings to our farm last year.
The wild hops are extremely vigorous plants. We were extremely disappointed by their aromas when they came out smelling like green peppers. I’m hoping that they evolve after establishing a larger root system in our yard but I don’t have high hopes for them ever being an amazing aroma hop. We’ll likely send them in for analysis in the future to see what their bittering values are. At this point they’d only do well in some type of Pepper Ale.
Sounds like you all use a slightly unconventional method to dry your hops where you don’t add heat to the process. What prompted you to start doing that? How did it change the quality of your dried hops?
It’s typically around 100 degrees here in Kansas when we are harvesting, so it’s already plenty hot! After reading that high temperatures can reduce the quality of the resins and essential oils inside the hop cones we decided against adding any type of heating element to our drying beds. In addition, we are still at a small enough scale that we’re perfectly fine with taking 24 hours or so to dry our hops. Many of the huge commercial farms out West need to dry their hops in 6-8 hours to make room for the next batch that is rolling off the harvester so they are forced to add heat in their kiln.
Do you also pelletize your own hops? How does one learn to do that?
2018 was the first year we did our own processing. There is a lot of trial and error when learning how to properly run a hammermill and pellet mill. Proper moisture content of the hops, how fast to load the material in to the mill, how fast to run the mill, ideal die temperature, etc... It takes a lot of experience to create perfect pellets. It’s something we’ll continue to improve on in the future.
When I look at the Hop Growers of America reports, Kansas isn’t in there even though the state has a long agricultural history. Do you know how many acres are commercially grown in the state?
There isn’t a formal hop growers association in Kansas at this time so it’s tough to nail down the exact acreage. We have started to build relationships with other growers in our area and from talking to them I’d estimate there’s somewhere between 10-15 acres of hops being grown in the state at this time. It’s still being determined if it’s practical to grow hops in Kansas on a commercial scale but I’m sure that number will slowly continue to climb.
How has the consistency of hop quality been so far? I would imagine that you’re getting better oil content as your bines get older- is that a safe assumption?
Yes, as the plants mature the oil content and the specific aromas associated with each variety become more consistent. When they are young the characteristics can vary quite a bit from season to season but as the hops get older and more established we can begin to rely on particular varieties having the same aromas each year. As the years go by our yields and the brewing qualities of our hops will get better and better. The majority of our yard will be considered “mature” in 2019 so we can’t wait to see how this year’s harvest goes.
I see research being done by Universities in Missouri, Nebraska and Colorado. Do you know of any being done in Kansas?
At this time there is no research being done in Kansas on a University level. We’ve been in contact with the Kansas Department of Agriculture and K-State about putting on some type of hop related workshop for the last couple of years but that hasn’t come to fruition. It seems like Hemp is all the rage here in KS at the moment and most of the specialty crop research has been focused on that lately. We are fortunate that many of our neighboring states have invested in University level hop research as we’ve been able to tap into a lot of their findings.
You recently went to a conference for Midwest hop farmers, what was your biggest takeaway?
The conference was for both growers and brewers. From speaking with the brewers there it’s evident that they want to utilize local ingredients in their beers but the quality has to be there. At the end of the day, they can promote their beer as a product that uses local hops but if the farmer screwed up their harvest timing, drying process, or packaging and the hops smell like cheese, garlic, or onions then the consumer isn’t going to want to drink beer at that brewery anymore.
Nationally we are starting to see some signs of a shakeout in the craft brewing industry. There are over 7,000 craft breweries operating in the USA right now and I expect to see that number continue to rise. However, just being a craft brewery isn’t good enough anymore. Since many areas have multiple breweries a short distance from each other they are forced to make great beer or the consumer will just go to the other brewery down the street. So, we are seeing breweries with poor business plans and sub-par products start to close. The openings are still far outweighing the closings at this point. The best thing about Kansas is the market is still undersaturated. I believe every small to midsize town can support a craft brewery and there is an opportunity for 30-40 more neighborhood type breweries to open up in Kansas over the next 5-10 years.
How big do you think the opportunity for hops grown in Kansas is?
As the number of breweries in our state rises the demand for local brewing ingredients will continue to rise as well. There’s probably enough demand for around 20-25 acres of hops right now but I can see that doubling over the next decade if it’s proven that the yields per acre are profitable.
Would you encourage someone else to take the plunge and start their own hop yard?
I’m all for new farmers trying to grow hops but I encourage them to approach it with some caution. Start out small (a quarter acre or less) to give yourself an idea of how much work it really is. Growing hops requires a ton of hands-on manual labor. It’s similar to gardening on a large scale. It’s also expensive to construct a trellis and purchase all of the necessary specialized equipment and machinery. In addition, it’s important to establish relationships with your potential brewery customers before you put any plants in the ground.
If a homebrewer in your area wanted to grow a few bines, what advice would you give them?
We have homebrewers contact us all the time. The first thing I tell them is that almost all of the trendy/fruity varieties that they love to brew with are proprietary and they can’t grow them! Then I fill them in on the public varieties that do grow well here in our climate so they aren’t wasting their time. We get a lot of questions about when to cutback, train, harvest, etc...so I try to steer them in the right direction.
I’m assuming that you brew, or at least used to brew, your own beer. What styles do you like to brew?
Technically we’ve never really brewed our own beer. We like to leave that to the professionals. There’s a co-op type place here in Kansas called the Brew Lab where you can go in and use their equipment and they guide you through the brewing process. We’ve done that a few times and we’ve also been a part of several brew days at commercial breweries when we deliver hops but never had our own homebrewing equipment. We are learning more about brewing all of the time and I think that’s important as a grower so we’re able to have educated discussions with our brewery customers about how and when hops are utilized throughout the process. We’d love to have some type of farm brewery in the future. It would likely feature all kinds of ales (IPAs, Pales, Ambers, Browns, Sessions, etc…)
Is there a hop that’s your favorite? If so, why?
We’re huge fans of our Chinook hops. They comprise about a third of our hop yard. Like I mentioned before they have very fruity notes as opposed to the typical piney and resinous qualities that you normally get out of Chinook. We’ve rebranded it as “Kanook” so our customers know that they are getting something a little bit different than what they’re used to from that variety.
Anything else we should know?
We’d like for everyone to follow our journey on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, etc... We also have a newsletter signup on the contact page of our website www.kansashopco.com. We love supplying hops to breweries and hope to continue to grow our brewery customer family in the future. We are also enjoying branching outside of the brewing industry and getting our hops in the hands of florists, coffee roasters, distillers, candle makers, soda makers, kombucha makers, vintners, etc... so be on the lookout for our hops in all sorts of new and exciting products.