Golden State Hops
Grant Parnagan is a third-generation farmer in California’s Central Valley. He is however, the first to grow hops.
One of his roles as the person responsible for running field operations in the family run business is to experiment with new crops that might develop into new products for the farm.
Sometimes the experiments work and sometimes they don’t. A project to grow a seedless kumquat didn’t go as planned, however, he is working with a new type of avocado that will grow in sandy soils that looks promising.
About five years ago, Grant started getting curious about hops. A quick internet search didn’t turn up any useful information for growing hops in the Central Valley. Conventional wisdom said they wouldn’t grow successfully in the area.
After a couple years’ worth of research, Grant and his farm crew planted a ‘”test plot” of 10 acres amid an almond orchard that stretches out in all directions from the plot. 2019 will be his third harvest from the bines. That test plot gives him one of the largest hop farms in California.
When deciding what to plant, Grant looked at the 10 most popular hops in the Craft Beer industry and from them planted 2 acres each of Cascade, Willamette, Magnum, Centennial and Chinook. While the Centennial is struggling, and the Willamette is getting by, the other three varieties are doing well. When I visited the Chinook and Magnum in particular had grown tall, were heavy with cones and were dark green against the bright blue afternoon sky.
He’s hoping to break even on the farm level this year- the first step to breaking even at the enterprise level where he includes all of the specialized equipment and trellising supplies needed to get the operation started.
To keep those costs down, Grant has been thrifty. It helps that he’s starting on a working farm so land, tractors and other equipment is available. Labor is there too. It still carries a cost, but he didn’t have to go through the hiring process many other startup operations go through.
He also had a “boneyard” of scrap equipment that he was free to adapt and use if he could. When Grant noticed that his mechanical harvester, a rare brand-new purchase, was leaving more of the bine and leaf matter in with the hop cones, he turned to tinkerer Matt Buys.
Matt has an easy confidence about him, and hands that look like they’re constantly working. Using parts scrounged from the boneyard, Matt assembled a conveyor belt that would take the hops from the harvester and feed them into bins. Underneath the end of that conveyor belt are two fans that will blow off the lighter leaf and stem matter, leaving just the cones to fall into the bins below.
Matt also converted a shipping container into an oast to dry the hops controlled by an Inkbird temperature regulator. There are fans to circulate the air, vents cut into the side of the container and bins repurposed from other farm operations.
Once bins are full of hops, they’re stacked in a staggered pattern inside the shipping container. When the bins are set, the Inkbird will raise the heat 115 degrees for overnight drying.
After several hours of drying the Inkbird will let the temperature drop slightly by turning off the heat and using the ambient air (usually still in the high 90s overnight during harvest season) to finish drying and start the cooling process.
After cooling, the hops go into a machine that grinds them up into dust. The hop dust is in turn fed into a machine that creates the hop pellets. This was another area Grant had to go with new equipment.
Not to say that everything has been easy. Looking to produce high quality hops with no foundation to start from and no hands-on experience working with the plants would be a challenge for anyone.
Learning to run the pelletizing machine created a large challenge. If you look online, you might find a couple of videos, but no classes to teach you how to run the process.
At first, they ran the pelletizing machine too hot and burned the hops. Think black rabbit food.
After some practice they learned what temperatures worked best for turning ground up hops into pellets. Then they had to learn how to regulate the moisture content – somewhat ironic since they had just finished the process of removing moisture from the hops. However, to keep the pelletizing machine cool and the hops moist enough in the hot, dry Central Valley air they needed to rig up a way to add small amounts of water in a controlled manner to the process.
Now they can have a crew of two running the pelletizing process. After both crewmembers get the process of taking the dried cones and feeding them into the grinder, they can split jobs so that one runs the machine and the other feeds cones in and packs the hop pellets coming out the other side.
With the kinks worked out, Grant and his team can get from harvest to nitrogen-purged, vacuum sealed bulk packs in less than 24 hours. Since the farm already has large cooling rooms, Grant can keep the hops at ideal storage temperatures until he sells them.
From harvest to drying and pelletizing, Grant estimates that the cones weigh about a quarter as much at the end of the process as they had just off the bine. This year he’ll likely harvest about 3,500 pounds of hops – in pellet form. About 14,000 pounds of fresh hops.
Get some hops!