July 15, 2012

Hopping on

The booming craft beer industry and the local-food movement help to make hops a hot crop around the nation.

By GEORGINA GUSTIN McClatchy Newspapers

(Continued from page 1)

Growing hops for brewing beer in Illinois
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A grower holds a hop cone, which provides an important ingredient in brewing beer.

David Carson/St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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"We do a lot of one-offs, so we're not that dependent on a single hop," Wymore said. "I never want to put myself in that hop-dependent situation again."

Dan Kopman of the St. Louis Brewery (aka Schlafly) needs a classic English hops called East Kent Goldings for the brewery's signature pale ale -- and has to secure contracts years in advance to get it.

But he's also on a constant, competitive search to find the latest, interesting variety.

Last year he contracted with a hops grower in Tasmania, for a Tasmanian India Pale Ale, to be released this fall. "We're looking for varieties two to three years out," he said. "You have to be way, way, way ahead."

While growers in the Midwest are hoping to fulfill some of the need, they face some challenges. Hops are notoriously difficult to grow, and grow better in northern climates that are cooler, with less disease-causing humidity.

"We're high enough in latitude," said Matt McCarroll, a chemistry professor at Southern Illinois University, who planted a hop yard near Murphysboro, Ill., in 2009. "The real challenge is mildew and pests."

Another is money. Hops are expensive to get established, and even more expensive to process.

"You have to harvest it well, and you need special equipment. It's important to dry them quickly and well," Hieronymus explained. "We're talking about millions of dollars of investment for equipment you're using six weeks a year."

Some hop growing organizations, including Gorst Valley Hops, in Wisconsin, and the Northeast Hop Alliance, based in New York, are overcoming that by sharing equipment.

McCarroll says he's been thinking about setting up a similar arrangement in Illinois, and is even experimenting with a test patch of barley, hoping to make an all-local brew.

But some brewers question whether that's wise or even viable.

"The whole idea that we're going to brew a beer that's made from ingredients grown here, that's cool," Kopman said. "But can you keep brewing that beer?"

James Altwies at Gorst Valley says he thinks the only way for small-scale hop farmers to make the business work is to show brewers they're getting something special, worth the $12 or $13 a pound growers need to charge.

A small-scale grower, Altwies said, can dry the hops at lower temperatures, and even customize the final product to produce a certain finish or bittering.

"It's hot to be local, and people will pay for that," he said.

Some small-scale growers are even hoping to strike hops gold in their own yards and greenhouses. At Scratch Brewing, Josephson and her partners found wild hops and are trying to propagate them.

"They're actually really hardy, and we really like the flavor," she said. "I think they have a lot of potential."


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Additional Photos

Growing hops for brewing beer in Illinois
click image to enlarge

Matt McCarroll, a chemistry professor at Southern Illinois University, checks out his hops plants near Murphysboro, Ill. “The real challenge is mildew and pests,” he says.

David Carson/St. Louis Post-Dispatch


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