Last year I was having more trouble than usual coming up with things beyond the standard brew store/amazon/gift card assortment when asked what I wanted for Christmas. There is a delicate balance in my family when suggesting gift items- too practical and you’ll never get it (not fun enough). Too impractical will get you the same (too much fun, must be trouble). Of course, what’s considered practical and not, vary from person to person. Since everyone shares the suggestions, it feels like trying to thread some sort of needle through the center of a moving Venn diagram.
Thinking about things I'd use, I typed "hop of the month club" in Google and amazingly got no results. I later found a brewery that was doing a single hopped IPA released once a month with a rotating hop. But that was out of state and so wouldn’t have worked anyway.
There are a couple of quarterly boxes out there. At the time, I was brewing about once every four to six weeks and couldn’t find anything on that schedule.
From there I started digging into the hop industry, mostly in the U.S. because that's where I live, to see if it was possible that there was a hop farm somewhere with a gift pack for homebrewers.
While I didn’t find a hop farm with a gift section, I did discover that there are now commercial hop farms all over the country. I started wondering why as brewers we don't consider where our beer ingredients come from. Sure, we might know that our hops came from Washington State, or Oregon, or England, Germany, New Zealand or even the Czech Republic.
Those are pretty non-specific places- like trying to tell a wine drinker that their wine comes from California. Death Valley and the Napa Valley are both in California, but I'm not sure the wine from Death Valley would be on par with the Napa Valley (despite the obvious Halloween marketing potential).
It's also bothered me, like a low-level itch that you can't quite reach, that I had no idea what variety of barley I was using in most cases. I love Maris Otter, find Golden Promise a bit lean for my style of brewing and after that all I knew was maybe 2-row or 6-row. More often, we talk about malt based on how it’s processed or its color: Pilsner, Munich, Brown, Black Roasted, Smoked, Caramel, Crystal, Aromatic, etc. Again, non-specific. (I’ve since learned a bit more about malting varieties.)
I can go to a grocery store and find produce from both general (Chile, California) and specific places (Oro Valley, Rio Grande Valley, wine from American Viticultural Area and French Appellations). Restaurants focused on local foods litter their menus with farm, grower and co-op names. Even products like some bottled waters will tell you the specific spring used to source the contents.
Why then, should our craft beer ingredients be any different?
I understand that modern farming is largely about scale. As consumers, we demand lower prices on everything, and the easiest way to meet that as a business is to go big, buy in bulk, mix it all together and sell a relatively consistent product under one label that statistically varies little from year to year. Can you name where your flour, sugar, frozen foods or even meat comes from? Laugh, but "the grocery store" is not an uncommon answer to the question.
There are, of course, exceptions to my generalizing and there are farmer's markets and other outlets where we can find truly local food ingredients.
I was excited to find that there is a malting company within 20 miles of my house. TexMalt is a small craft malting company dedicated to sourcing their grains from Texas farms. A quick perusal of their website turns up not only barley varieties that they are working with farmers to scale up production of, but also specific types of wheat and rye used as well. Brewers in New York, Massachusetts and a few other states can choose from multiple local malting companies to choose from.
There are even local and regional yeast producers. Bootleg Biology has a project to collect wild yeast from every zip code in the US and then offer those with brewing characteristics on a commercial scale. If you haven't looked them up yet, look at the link below - you can already purchase a yeast cultured from a sample captured in Arlington, Virginia. Haw River Ales in North Carolina uses a yeast isolated from wild strains captured nearby as their house culture.
Which brings me back to hops... if I wanted to know, down to the farm or co-op, where my hops came from, I was going to need to go directly to the producers. I quickly found that the challenge there is twofold.
First, while many small hop farms are set up to be able to produce their own hop pellets, most cannot also justify the cost in both equipment and time to sell hops in quantities usable by homebrewers. Unless you're brewing large batches or a lot of NEIPAs, 11 pounds of hops is going to go a long way. I estimated my own consumption of hops at 27 to 36 ounces per year, about 2-3 pounds - but split between several varieties.
The second challenge was that since a lot of smaller farms sell through their production in a relatively short period of time every year, the hop I was looking for might not even still be available when I was ready for it. Ryan Triggs at Kansas Hop Company sold through his entire 2018 harvest by the end of January 2019.
I had also been looking for a side project to start.
As much as I love malt, and would love to focus on sourcing local malts from around the world… the shipping on 50-pound bags renders that largely unfeasible with the small startup budget I was able to put together.
Yeast would be fun too- with all the small producers around, and all of the unique varieties being isolated, there would surely be enough source material. Shipping nixed this one as well- I live in north Texas, so shipping yeast from here in the summer would require an ice pack and extra fast delivery if I wanted to get good product out to fellow homebrewers. With one pitch running somewhere between $10 and $20 just to deliver…
Hops though, are relatively light weight, ship well once they’re packaged and there are a lot of varieties uncovered in my research that I hadn’t either heard of or brewed with. Michigan Copper, Mackinac, Gemini, Pekko, Rakau, Motueka, Sabro, Pacific Jade, Triumph, Jester, Godiva, Calypso and Mandarina Bavaria to name a few.
From there it was figuring out how to communicate what I wanted to do, and see if anyone else was interested.
Before I got a chance to get too mired in the weeds. A friend with one of the local homebrewing clubs suggested that I set up a booth at the Bluebonnet Brew Off and talk to other home brewers face to face. Before I could let myself find a lot of reasons why, I agreed. That, at least, gave me a deadline to do something or move on.
I also needed to find hop farms willing to work with a new business- and an unknown business model. I was lucky that Chad Meigs from The Bineyard reached out early on in the process to find out how he could get involved. He was generous enough to hop on the phone with me an answer a bunch of questions, and to wait a few months before I could place my first order with him.
As a side benefit, now that I have a lot of hops coming in, that means I get to brew more often. An unexpected benefit, and one that I love!
Links to some of the resources mentioned above. This is not, by any means, an exhaustive list.
Coleman Agriculture (Oregon) and Oregon State University put science to the study of hop terroir: https://www.colemanag.com/hopterroir
New York - http://www.thebineyard.com/
South Dakota - https://www.herdstohops.com/
Kansas – https://www.kansashopco.com/
Washington – https://hopsdirect.com/pages/about-us (I later found that they do have a gift section on their website featuring hop infused soaps and teas.)
Colorado – http://www.coloradohopcompany.com
California – https://goldenstatehops.com/
Kansas – https://darbrofarms.com/
Texas - https://www.ruachorganic.com/
Ontario, Canada - http://greatcanadianhops.com/
Based in British Columbia – www.projecthop.ca
South Dakota: http://www.6thmeridian.com/
Fermentation Nation podcast with Sebastian from Epiphany Craft Malt: http://fermentationnation.net/2018/09/take-2-episode-5-malt-malting-maltsters-epiphany-craft-malt/
List of barley varieties recommended for malting in the U.S.: https://ambainc.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Recommend_Varieties_Update_July_9_2019.pdf
List of malting barley varieties recommended for Canadian growers: http://cmbtc.com/publications/variety-quality-overviews/
Experimental Brewing Podcast with Seth from Mecca Grade: https://www.meccagrade.com/fieldnotes/2017/9/27/experimental-brewing-podcast-purge-your-beer-of-boring-malt
Odyssey malting barley: https://limagraincerealseeds.com/malting-barley-seed/lcs-odyssey/
Haw River Farmhouse Ales: http://hawriverales.com/blog/-hey-homebrewers-lets-get-wild