Hop harvest 2018 has come to completion for the state of Nebraska. (Woohoo!) Now is the time for some reminders about protecting the quality of hops in the drying, packaging and processing procedures so that we can continue to protect the integrity of the small industry here in our state. This post is not meant to be harsh – it is meant to be our commitment to “doing it right,” our commitment to quality.
If you’ve completed a hop harvest this year, long before now, you’ve built a relationship with your buyers, likely a regional brewer over many conversations. You’ve likely given your hops out right to test in a pilot batch or conducted a sensory analysis with them. Even before that, you’ve dried your hops down to ~10% moisture, packaged them in air tight wrapping that keeps light and moisture out, and possibly already worked with a processor to pelletize your crop. Either way, you’ve established with your buyer what varieties they want, what processing they expect, and the price they will pay per pound. You’ve put a lot of sweat into growing and long hours into the relationships that ultimately determine the beers that your hops create wonderfully refreshing flavors in.
Marketing your hops is no easy task. If you’re just getting started in hop production or interested in hop production, hear me out. Before you consider putting a single plant in the ground, determining if there is a market for your hops and where should be your priority. “If I grow it, they will come,” is the furthest from the truth in this case. Being able to prove that you can produce a quality product goes hand in hand. Because the fact of the matter is, brewers don’t need the hops produced here in Nebraska. There are thousands of acres of hops produced each year in the Pacific Northwest. However, brewers and consumers of their beer, want to support local hop production when growers “do it right.” Yes, there are tax incentives for brewers using local ingredients, but at the end of the day, brewers must provide consistently great tasting beer for their consumers to keep them coming back.
So if you’re considering hop production, my recommendation to you is to reach out to a brewer you may have a connection with or would like to build a relationship with. Sit down with them over a beer, (And don’t expect them to be at the tap room on a weekend) and have a genuine conversation about what they are looking for from local hop producers. Discuss what local means to them; what varieties they’d like to have in their beers; what post harvest processing they’d like their products to undergo – i.e. fresh, dried whole cone, pelleted; how much they would pay per pound; how they would use the hops in a beer – i.e. bittering or aroma; what their expectations are for chemical spray record keeping, packaging, lab analysis testing, etc. There is much work that goes into these relationships. A quick phone call to a brewery with no previous contact, or a facebook post of your hops isn’t going to cut it these days.
In the interest of protecting quality and integrity of our small industry here in Nebraska, getting a grower number is another step hop producers should take. It is likely that hop processors and/or brewers in the region will require this step. It is of no cost to the grower to obtain a number, nor does it require a membership in the Hop Growers of America. Acquiring one has two requirements:
- Are growing hops with the intent of commercial use
- At a minimum, have a quarter of an acre of hops
“Grower numbers are an important tool used in the hop selection process, as important as variety and lot numbers…This standard has been a part of the hop industry in the Northwest for decades, and has helped guide brewers, not only for reasons of raw material traceability, but also for reasons of consistency and familiarity with individual farms. Grower numbers are one of a number of data points that we log with every brewer’s cut that we assess and have helped us to recognize the farms and the growing regions that produce the best hops for our beers. As commercial hop growing moves out of the Northwest and across the country, having a standardized system in place that connects the bale to the growers in these new regions is obviously important.”
– Firestone Walker Brewmaster Matt Brynildson
To apply for a grower number, email a completed Grower Number Application Form and email it to email@example.com.
The following is the story of the brewers of Scratchtown Brewing Co. in Ord, NE, and two hop producers in Valley County, Nebraska. They discuss how they developed their relationships, and how they’ve helped set an industry standard here in the state. Quality production has been a key piece of the progression of their relationships.
“From the standpoint of meeting, we all knew each other through either relationships in town (small town roots) or through our taproom. Each grower approached us with regard to our interest in local hops. We were receptive, IF (and a BIG IF) they were committed to “doing it right.” To our great satisfaction, both hop yards were. The biggest difference I’ve seen between the “hobbyists” you’re talking about, and the two fantastic Valley County hop producers we have is mindset. From day one, both Loup Valley Hops and Legendary Roots Brewing Supply have been dedicated to a commercial producer’s ethic. From grower, to packaging, to sales, they’re treating it like an agricultural commodity for use in commercial brewing operations. The focus on quality and high standards in packaging is essential for commercial brewers. I can’t keep track of how many hobbyists have called us with just-harvested wet hops and asked if we’re ready to buy. We’ve had no relationship, no conversation and no information on the quality of their product. The answer is now always no, unless they’ve put in the kind of work both our Valley County hop yards have. Wet hops are incredibly hard of us to use and we prefer packaged varietals that have shelf life.
Finally, we’re really determined to develop a Valley County terroir for our beer and each yard in our county is essential for us to do so. We are so thankful to have what we do out here. Hyper-local is where its at!” – Caleb Pollard, Owner, Scratchtown Brewing Co.
From a hop growers perspective,
“It’s not your typical farmin’: Mike and Caleb were encouraging but very much told us from the beginning “you need to educate yourselves about hops and decide if it’s right for your operation”. So we spent some time, effort, and expense to seek out the education on the agricultural aspect of hops production. The typical Nebraska farming operation is wheat, corn, and beans and we were no different. We quickly learned that growing hops was a huge shift for us both in terms of growing, processing and marketing of the crop. Working with Mike and Caleb, they gave us great guidance (aka hand holding) on hop harvest readiness during our first year which helped us immensely. We’re still very much rookies but increasingly comfortable with hop production.
Growers really need to understand how hops are used: For us we needed to understand the difference in varieties, pellets vs. whole leaf, wet vs dry, bittering vs aroma. We also recognized we needed to understand how our potential customers would use this product, so we did some home brewing and got some brewery tours, and watched videos and read books. Having a basic understanding of the brewing process has helped us to establish credibility and rapport with brewers.”
-Kevin Wagner, Owner, Legendary Roots Brewing Supply, Ord, NE
*This is one unique story among the hop producers in Nebraska. If you and a brewer have a story you’d like to share, please email Katie at firstname.lastname@example.org.*
So what does quality hop production mean? It means scouting your hops throughout the season to keep disease and insect pests to a minimum. It means submitting samples to a lab for alpha and beta acids, moisture content, and hop storage index values. It means using the proper packaging and storage measures to ensure hops don’t mold or break down. It means understanding how the hops are used in the brewing process. It means knowing your hops – specifically how they were dried, what aromas they provide to beer, etc. There’s a chance YOUR hops won’t have the textbook aromas.
The hop production and brewing industry in Nebraska has made great strides, thanks to the efforts of the brewers and growers in the state who have put quality first. Whether you’re a grower or a brewer, the consumer is what matters at the end of the day. Do you have questions in how to proceed as a hop producer in Nebraska? I cannot build relationships for you, but I can point you in the right direction.
Looking to get into hop production? Looking for ways to connect with other grower and brewers in our state? Check out the upcoming 3rd annual Nebraska Grower and Brewer Conference & Trade Show! We have some new and exciting ways for you to grow, learn, connect and contribute to the industry here in the state.
To ask questions or subscribe to this blog, email Katie at email@example.com.