20 Questions: Cedar Falls Hops Co's Keri Byrum on Leaving Florida Theme Parks to Grow Hops in the Midwest
Before deciding to farms hops in Iowa, Keri Byrum worked at one of the largest theme parks in Orlando, Florida and the University of Florida IFAS Extension Office. Curious what drew her from sun drenched Florida to growing hops in the Hawkeye State, I asked her to play 20 questions.
Q: What got you interested in growing hops?
A: My husband and I were living in Orlando, Florida and made the decision to move to the farm I grew up on in Iowa. My background is in horticulture, so I started investigating crops, other than corn and beans, that would be a good outlet for me. I just need to grow things! My dad was retiring and, as a farmer, we were hoping that our combined experiences would partner well. One thing led to another and a few months later we started putting 22’ tall poles in the ground.
Q: How long have you been growing hops?
A: This is our third year growing hops.
Q: What varieties are you growing? Which ones are doing well for you?
A: We are growing Cascade, Crystal and Mackinac. We’ve recently made the decision to remove 2 acres of Columbia from production. It hasn’t grown well for us and after three years we’ve decided it is time to replace it. Similarly, we did have an acre of Southern Cross that we were really excited about. It grew well the first summer and seemed to come through the winter well too. Unfortunately, springs in Iowa are rollercoasters of warm weather followed by cold weather and we found that this variety came out of winter dormancy too early and eventually crown rot developed in the buds that started growing during early warm days. We lost 90% of our plants. It is a tough learning lesson, but when you are some of the first people in an area to grow these plants those things will happen.
Q: What led you to grow the hop varieties that you have?
A: I like to think we are getting much better at selecting varieties! To start out it was really just a guessing game. Now we are at a point where we’ve developed relationships with brewers and we get their input. It is so helpful to be able to bounce ideas off of your potential customers.
Q: How big is your hop yard?
A: We have seven acres.
Q: Do you homebrew?
A: No, we don’t homebrew. My husband and I have dabbled in it, but we’ve decided that this part is better left to others.
Q: Do you grow anything else?
A: We have a son who is going to be two soon, does that count? 😊
Q: How big is your farm crew? Do you grow during harvest, or is it just the three of you that we see on the website?
A: Most of the time it is just me, my dad Rusty and my husband Mike. When we are harvesting, we are able to get some local university students to help. We also have terrific friends and family who pitch in when we need them.
Q: Do you process and pelletize the hops yourself? If so, how did you learn to process them?
A: We do not process ourselves. We partner with other growers for processing our hops.
Q: How has your reception from the professional brewing community in your area been?
A: It takes time to develop relationships with people in any type of business and that includes raising hops. We are now getting to the point where we are beginning to establish a good reputation and we are always willing to go the extra mile for our customers. I understand that brewers need to ensure that their final product is of the highest quality and a lot of that comes from the quality of the hops.
Q: Have you had a chance to interact with the homebrew community at all? If so, what has the reception been like?
A: I love our homebrewers! They are extremely supportive. We’ve hosted meetings and tours at our farm for these groups and they are always enthusiastic. Last year we partnered with a local brewery for a “fresh hop mash-off” where the brewery provided the wort and we let homebrewers come to our farm and pick their own fresh hops. A few months later there was an event where the public could try these brews and awards were given out. Without exception, every commercial brewer I’ve met started out as a homebrewer. I think its very important for us to foster these relationships with our homebrewers so that when they decide to make the jump to having their own brewery they are connected to our farm and want to keep collaborating.
Q: Any advice for homebrewers in your area looking to start growing hops?
A: Get them planted! I find that people tend to over-engineer their trellis system. And also talk to the growers around you. I encourage people to come visit us to see what is, and isn’t, working here.
Q: Are you having any pest or disease problems that were unexpected?
A: Japanese beetles have been really aggressive. Their season tends to peak near our harvest time, so we have to just tolerate them and their voracious eating because we don’t want to spray anything close to harvest.
Q: Have you found an aroma, flavor or other characteristics (terroir) that sets your hops apart from the traditional growing areas?
A: Good question! We are partnering with ISU this year to do some comprehensive analysis on this question. We will compare Iowa grown hops with traditional PNW grown hops and compare the results.
Q: Are you planning to expand?
A: Not at this time.
Q: Is there a community of other growers in your area that you work with?
A: Yes, we definitely interact with other Iowa growers and talk to each other for help and questions. Currently there is not a statewide organization for growers but I think that will happen in the future.
Q: Any press or other articles we should link to?
A: Here is a nice one from a couple of years ago: https://wcfcourier.com/business/local/cedar-falls-family-keeps-the-hops-down-on-the-farm/article_1269af03-b6df-572c-b165-80e71b706369.html
Note: Keri has also written about growing hops, including the article pictured below in Iowa Gardening.
Q: Do you have a favorite hop? If so, what makes it special?
A: I really like Crystal. It has low cohumulone so the beer is very smooth and easy to drink. It also helps that we’ve had success growing it!
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I spend a lot of time during the winter months giving presentations around the state about growing hops. This is such a new industry that I think it is important to educate the public about how these plants grow, the challenges, opportunities and how hops relate to the beer they are drinking. I find these folks leave and become our biggest fans and advocates for using locally grown hops.
Get some Hops!
The October 2019 Club shipments will include Mackinac and Cascade grown by Cedar Fall Hops Company.