By Lee Reiherzer
In 1846, a New York hop farmer named Silas Allen loaded his family into a wagon and set out for Wisconsin. Among the items they carried was a barrel of hop roots. When their journey ended, the Allen family established one of East Central Wisconsin’s first hop farms in what is now Allenville, a community just north of Oshkosh. Over the next decade, Allen grew rich as hop farming grew into big business in Wisconsin. By the early 1860s, Wisconsin was growing 20 percent of the nation’s hops. But the plant continued its westward migration. Hop yards bloomed on the West Coast during the 1870s where conditions are ideal for hop growing. At the same time, hop acreage in Wisconsin declined. By the turn of the century, hop farming in East Central Wisconsin had all but disappeared. Now, it’s coming back.
The revivalists include farmers like Chris Holman. You may have already met Holman. He’s often at the Oshkosh and Appleton farmers markets where he sells eggs and pasture-raised meats that he and his partner, Maria Davis, raise at Nami Moon Farms. Their small farm is set among rolling hills a few miles east of Stevens Point. They also tend a one-acre hop yard there that was established in 2010 by Davis’ parents. When Davis’ father died unexpectedly in February, Holman’s responsibilities grew. “Maria and I had always helped, but the hops were more their project than ours,” he says. “This year we’ve had a more active role.”
They’re doing well. This year’s crop is lush and hearty, with three varieties of hops growing – cascade, columbus and nugget. Last year their farm produced over 300 pounds of hops. This year Holman is anticipating a larger harvest. “I don’t feel like we’ve come close to the acre’s full potential,” Holman says. “That’s because of the timeline for hops maturing and figuring out how to do everything well. There’s a steep learning curve. I know the basics. It’s all the tweaking that I’m still learning.”
Holman isn’t the only Wisconsin farmer trying to figure these things out. His acre of hops is a model of what’s occurring in the state. Like Holman, most growers here tend less than two acres of hops. Currently, there are fewer than 70 acres of hops under cultivation in Wisconsin. Contrast that with the hop growers of Washington where there are 27,000 acres dedicated to the plant and the average hop farm is 450 acres. The Wisconsin farms may seem insignificant in comparison, but farmers like Holman might soon find their product in high demand.
Hop acreage lags well behind the number of new breweries starting up. These new, smaller breweries tend to consume significantly more hops per barrel of beer than old-guard brewers like MillerCoors. Some industry experts predict shortages will begin occurring in 2015. When that happened in 2008, hop prices soared. For a farmer with a good harvest, that could mean a yield of better than $10,000 per acre of land. But Holman cautions that hops are not a quick-cash crop.
“Hops is a long-term investment,” Holman says. “This yard was very expensive to put in. It usually takes 3-4 years before you can expect to get a full crop from your plants. As it is, I tell people don’t grow hops. At least start small, maybe a quarter or half acre. Then creep into it, but don’t just jump into it because it can really bite you. There’s a lot to do and at certain times of the year it gets crazy.”
The hop season begins in spring when the perennial plants sends up vining shoots that develop into bines. Each bine has to be trained onto ropes attached to overhead wires spanning the tops of 20-foot poles. “It very labor intensive in the spring,” Holman says. “After that its just a lot of maintenance until harvest time.” This year that means fighting downy mildew, a damaging fungus that thrives in wet conditions. “Everyone has bad downy this year,” Holman says. “When it’s rainy or windy like it’s been this year, it’s hard to get ahead of it.”
If all goes well, the harvest begins in September. By then the bines are 20-feet high and teeming with the pungent, radish-sized cones that are prized by brewers for imparting the unique aroma and bitterness essential to beer. The bines are cut down onto a hay wagon and delivered to a wolf harvester, which mechanically separates the cones from the bines, stems and leaves. The first harvest at Nami Moon, they picked the cones by hand. That’s not something Holman cares to repeat. “Handpicking on this scale is ludicrous,” he says. “There’s no way you can do it unless you have like 50 friends who can come spend six hours picking hops.”
After they’re picked, the cones are loaded into an oast––a kiln designed for drying hops. “We have an oast in our barn, so we dry them here with a natural, air-drying system,” Holman says. “Then we package them and bring them to Wisconsin Hop Exchange. They process and pelletize them.” Wisconsin Hop Exchange also sells Holman’s hops, but he’s considering selling some of them directly to brewers. “We’re looking at talking to brewers to see if they’d be interested in wet hopping beers with our fresh hops,” he says. “At this point the only hops we’ve sold locally have been hop shoots to Christian’s Bistro. They served them up for food. They were pretty good.”
Walking with him through a hop yard that’s reaching maturity at a time when there’s a rapidly increasing need for its yield, I suggest to Holman that he might be in a good place. He considers it, then replies with a farmer’s stoicism. “We’ll see where it goes from here,” he says. “This year we’re definitely ahead of where we’ve been in previous years. Every year it has improved. That’s all you can hope for, I guess.”
Lee Reiherzer drinks, brews and researches beer in Oshkosh. Visit his blog, Oshkosh Beer, at OshkoshBeer.Blogspot.com
Hop Side of the Moon
By Lee Reiherzer