Some Trails are Hoppy Ones
...Others are blue. It's the way you brew the beer that counts, here's a hoppy one for you...
This month we're featuring two hops from the Hoppy Trails Hop Farm, Roy Rogers parody and all. The farms is in the very northwest corner of Iowa and Mark was nice enough to answer some questions about his farm, growing hops in a new area and his favorite hops.
What did you do before growing hops?
I have spent time working as a counselor/family therapist and I currently am a nurse full-time at Sanford USD Medical Center in Sioux Falls, SD. I've also always been involved on the family farm to some extent, helping with the small grain operation in addition to running the hop farm.
What got you interested in growing hops?
I saw the craft beer industry growing rapidly and had interest in being involved. I have a day-job, but thought using land on the family farm would be a good way to be involved without committing to working at a brewery, and would allow me to maintain my day-job. I started with a small plot of 150 plants in 2014, and quickly realized that size plot did not allow me to justify some of the equipment that would be needed to grow hops commercially, such as a sprayer, harvester, dryer, pelleting/processing system. The small plot also did not yield enough hops to really market a harvested product to our local breweries. I decided to expand the hop farm to about 4 acres in 2016.
Which varieties are doing well for you?
We are still riding the learning curve regarding which plants grow well in our area. There are about 5 small, but commercial size farms in our area (Northwest Iowa, Southeast South Dakota, Southwest Minnesota). We all started growing within a year or two of each other, so we relied on data from other Midwest growers about which varieties may be suited for our area. We, along with other neighboring farms, have found that hybrids with wild/native US parentage do quite well in our area, while heritage/noble varieties struggle to produce well overall. It has not helped that we have set precipitation records each of the past two years, resulting in occasional flooding, poor growing conditions, and disease pressure.
- Varieties that have done well: Cascade, Tahoma, Centennial, Crystal, Nugget, AlphAroma, Comet
- Varieties that have done poorly: US Hallertau, Kent Golding, Horizon
Do you homebrew? If so, what do you like to brew?
I would love to do more home brewing, but with my day-job and the demands of the hop farm/family farm operation, I just do not have the time to commit to the process in order to do it well. I have resolved myself to providing hops to those who do it well!
How big is your hop yard?
4 acres, about 3,750 plants
What was your biggest challenge getting started?
The weather. See question #4. Our commercial expansion began in 2016. We have had 3 harvests: 2017, 2018, 2019. Two out of our three initial growing seasons have been plagued with record rainfall, late snowstorms, and overall atypical weather patterns.
How has your reception from the professional brewing community in your area been?
We have great rapport and support with local breweries. It helps that we are dedicated to growing and supplying a fully pelleted, quality product. Brewers are able to trust our product. While we are not able to grow highly sought-after proprietary varieties, brewers have found ways to use the public rootstock varieties that we grow.
What do you see as your biggest challenge going forward?
Varietal selection and weather. We cannot control the weather, but we certainly hope the weather patterns normalize for our area compared to the past 2 years. Varietal selection involves replacing poor growing varieties with those more suited for our growing conditions when they have shown poor growth and production over several years.
Are you having any pests, problems or diseases that were unexpected?
We initially grew Chinook, but had >50% winter kill each of the first two years. No other varieties were affected, which was puzzling to us. An Iowa State agronomist came out and took some soil/root samples, but results were inconclusive as to the cause of that particular variety displaying winter kill.
Have you found an aroma, flavor or other characteristic that sets your hops apart from the traditional growing areas?
Lots of bright lemon in centennial. Grapefruit and floral aroma in Cascade. I have also detected some fruity/pineapple in our Crystal while on the vine, but I do not detect those aromas as much once dried/pelleted. Tahoma can have a faint onion/garlic smell coming out of the dryer, even with an early/typical harvest timing... that really seems to drop away after baling and pelleting, but its worried me a couple of times.
Is there a state or college hops research program in your area? If so, are you involved at all?
Iowa State University has the beginnings of a hop program. There are a few farms much closer to the University that work with the program more extensively (I am about 4 hours from the University). We have participated in a recent program comparing oil analysis of hops grown in Iowa to hops grown in Oregon.
Are you planning to expand your hop yard? If so, with new varieties or with more of the varieties that are doing well?
We do not plan to expand, but we do plan to continue to replace poor producing varieties with better growing varieties. We recently added Comet, which looks like it will be a good producer in our area. We plan to add Michigan Copper in spring 2020, and are considering adding the newer USDA variety, Triumph, but may not have room in our field for Triumph at this time.
Is there a community of other growers in your area that you work with? If so, how?
We are partnered with another Iowa grower that has a farm 10 miles from us. Their farm is called Star Sister Organic Hops. We have partnered for the space and equipment needed for pelleting/processing hops. Our joint processing operation is called Northwest Iowa Hops Alliance. We do not combine or sell our hops jointly, but rather share the cost of operating/maintaining the processing equipment. We also provide custom pelleting service for other local growers.
Any advice for homebrewers in your area looking to start growing hops?
Please talk with a local hop grower who can advise what varieties will grow well in your area!
Do you have a favorite hop? If so, what makes it special?
I love fruit-forward hops like Citra and Amarillo. While those varieties are proprietary and I cannot grow them, we have been enjoying the resurgence of Comet, which has citrus and fruity notes and also are excited to plant Michigan Copper. We had the opportunity to pellet Michigan Copper last year for another grower, and the processing facility smelled of Juicy Fruit with a touch of spice.
Do you grow anything else?
Not at this time, but we have had inquiries from our local brewing community about fruit production (raspberry, apricot, plum) and oat production. I'm not sure I'll have the time or space to expand into those areas, but it does seem there is a market opening for someone to begin growing adjuncts in our area.
Anything else we should know?
Happy Brewing and Hoppy Trails!
Check the farm out on Instagram: @hoppytrailshopfarm