Small-scale farming of hops—the flowering cones of the vining hop plant, used almost exclusively in beer making—is fast becoming a booming business. As Georgina Gustin reported last week for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch,
The boom in small-scale hop farming stems in part from the all-things-local ethos in today’s food culture, and the continuing interest in craft brewing. But many growers say they’re attempting to decentralize a hops industry long dominated by growers in the Pacific Northwest and Europe, where, combined, farmers grow about 80 percent of the world’s 120,000 hop acres. “We were really interested in creating beers crafted from ingredients from our region,” said Marika Josephson, of Scratch Brewing Company in Ava, Ill., which harvested its first hop crop last year. “To a certain extent, it’s about control.” A turning point that launched many new growers came in 2007 when weather conditions in Europe and a warehouse fire in Washington’s Yakima Valley destroyed a huge chunk of the globe’s hops. The remaining hops went to fulfill contracts with giant international breweries, leaving craft brewers scrambling. “Smaller brewers started saying: ‘This is kind of crummy. We need a better source of hops,'” said Joel Mulder, a hop farmer and managing director of the Michigan Hop Alliance, which formed four years ago with five growers.
It’s a nice article, so check out the full piece here.
In Wisconsin, the biggest force behind the rise in small-scale hops farming has been Gorst Valley Hops. (They even score a mention in the St. Louis piece referenced above.) Wisconsin State Journal business reporter Gena Kittner has been writing about the outfit for years. Her first article, from 2009, reported that
In the 19th century, Wisconsin grew one-fifth of all the hops raised in the country until mildew and aphid problems resulting from overcrowded plantations forced growers to move the crop the Pacific Northwest. Now [Gorst Valley director and horticulturist James] Altwies said state farmers have more sustainable production practices and new hop varieties that are disease and pest resistant and much higher yielding. The state has the right growing conditions, including the right amount of sunlight, 120 frost free growing days, and very cold winters, which allow for the dormancy the hops require to flower properly and produce optimal yields, Altwies said.
Kittner’s second article on Gorst Valley described the evolving enterprise a couple years ago:
For many of the Gorst Valley charter growers, this summer’s  harvest will be their “practice year.” Typically one acre will yield between 7 and 15 pounds of hops in its first year and by year four should yield between 1,500 and 2,000 pounds. While not usually profitable in the first year, an acre of hops could, within two years, generate $12,000 to $15,000 in crop revenue. “We’ll have hopefully a couple thousand pounds,” Altwies said of his third-year yield. Gorst Valley provides all its charter growers the technical and farming support in the hop growing process, which includes design work for the irrigation system, trellis system and pest management. After harvest, the hops are taken to a building to be dried and stored. Later, they are milled into powder, pelletized and sold to local breweries.
As detailed in Kittner’s most recent article, Gorst Valley has expanded from growing hops to developing and distributing hop-harvesting equipment.
This month, the company will ship its first 12 small-scale hop harvesters — the only machine of its kind, they say, made to mechanically harvest hops grown on 10 acres or less. Most farmers growing hops on less than 50 acres are forced to harvest by hand, said James Altwies, president of Gorst Valley, headquartered near Mazomanie. While it takes six workers an hour to harvest from two bines (the vines on which hops grow), Gorst Valley’s harvester, operated by three people, can harvest 30 to 60 bines an hour.
In addition, the hops keep rolling in:
The company has grown from seven growers farming 15 acres in 2009 to 32 growers farming 42 acres this year. That acreage is expected to increase to 60 in 2013. Gorst Valley produced 100 pounds of hops in 2009 and a few thousand in 2011. This fall, the company is expecting 10,000 pounds and it could be 30,000 by 2013. “We’ve kind of outpaced ourselves a little bit,” Altwies said. Now some of the growers farming one or two acres want to expand to up to 10 acres.
For details and photos, check out the articles linked above. Then stop by your local retailer of fine Wisconsin beers to enjoy a Gorst-Valley hopped brew, including the all-Wisconsin Weiss beer from Lakefront Brewery, called (what else?) Wisconsinite.