After years of exponential growth, craft breweries are now ubiquitous to beer drinkers in every corner of the country. Now these same craft lovers are starting to take notice of the craft ingredients that make their beer special.
Hops, perhaps the key flavor component of most brews, grow throughout the U.S. Dozens of small craft growers supply small breweries with local, high-quality hops. These farms are often family-run, community-centered, and count their acreage in double-digits vs. thousands.
As with craft brewers and drinkers, the relationship between farmer and customer is key. Craft breweries support buying local because they want flexibility and uniqueness in what they put in their beers. Chris Basso, brewmaster at Newburgh Brewing in Newburgh, N.Y., explains, “We have the ability to really know the producer and be able to talk with them on a personal level as well as discuss any brewing-related topics that might arise in regard to the hops.”
Basso buys from Crooked Creek Hops Farm in Addison, N.Y. Crooked Creek owner Chris Holden believes that some of the biggest advantages of being a craft farmer are loyalty and relationships. “I think that from a farmer’s standpoint, we want to look at it from the German model: we have a customer base who we work with from year to year and we have people who rely on us for generations.”
He also appreciates the independence of having a small farm. Crooked Creek grows eight acres of primarily Cashmere, Michigan Copper, Triumph, and Cascade. Smaller growers have the ability to focus on a few varieties that thrive on their unique plot of land versus being expected to grow every variety a brewer desires. “If we can plant a single variety per plot, that’s what we want,” says Holden.
Holden is also the director of sales and marketing for the New York Hop Guild. The guild is critical in supporting a variety-focused farming approach. It consolidates hops from smaller New York growers and distributes to craft breweries. Brewers get the convenience of buying from one distributor, while farmers can focus on what they do best.
Chris DellaBianca of Billy Goat Hop Farm in Montrose, Colo., also values his craft connections. “The relationship with the brewers is why we got into it,” he says. “I was working for a brewery before I got into hop farming and it’s still nice to be involved.” He currently distributes directly to about 75 breweries in the southwest U.S., as Colorado lacks the same grower support network as New York.
At 32 acres, Billy Goat is the largest hop farm in the Southwest. DellaBianca takes pride in growing several varieties of Neomexicanus, a hop native to Colorado and New Mexico, along with more traditional varieties.
The farm’s small scale means DellaBianca gets direct feedback and sees the fruits of his labor first-hand. “I know exactly where my hops are going because I’m the one bringing them there. I know exactly which beers my hops are going into.”
Its size also means Billy Goat can be flexible with customers. If a brewer needs a hop ASAP for a brew, DellaBianca can help. “With our proximity, we can get it out in the mail that day. You call and you’re talking to me or [DellaBianca’s partner] Audrey— there’s no middleman.” On the growing side, he adds, “It’s easier to keep track of 30 acres and what’s going on in the field.”
Stewards of the Land
Bridging the gap between very small craft farms and larger growers, Gooding Farms in Parma, Idaho, has a family farming history going back to 1895. Acreage has fluctuated with brewing demand, but hops have always been in the ground. Today, three sisters—Diane, Michelle, and Andrea—run the farm along with their father, Mike.
Local connections motivate the sisters in the same way as other craft growers. “We really enjoy the spirit of craft brewing and being part of that community,” says Diane Gooding. “Because we’re a little smaller and family-oriented, it lends itself well to that culture.”
Like many farmers, the sisters enjoy their connection with the land. In recent years, they’ve undertaken environmentally friendly initiatives to help keep the land healthier by moving to a regenerative model. Among other things, it involves growing seed to plant cover crops and raising livestock to eat those crops and fertilize the soil. “We’re really trying to get off the chemical-based fertilizers. We’re trying to have a lighter footprint and be better stewards for the environment and locally,” says Gooding.
The Gooding sisters have also built up the farm’s research and development capacity and now sell their own proprietary strain of hops called Idaho Gem.
It’s hard to understate the Goodings’ passion for hands-on farming. “It’s a unique process. Hops have a vibe. Experiencing that in person—you can’t replace that,” said Gooding.
A Labor of Love
Craft farming naturally presents challenges not faced by larger operations. From financing, staffing, economies of scale, and limited recovery ability from pests and weather, craft hop growers are always on their toes. “You end up wearing a lot of different hats as a smaller producer,” says Gooding.
The bottom line, however, is that it’s about the bottom line. Economics are the number one challenge for any craft producer, whether brewer or farmer. “We can’t grow all the different varieties. We’re trying to preach to brewers that we have to have a certain scale to make the economics work,” says Crooked Creek’s Holden. Fortunately, he and his fellow growers have the support of the New York Hop Guild. “It frees the farmers to focus on the varieties that thrive on their terroir.”
Working small simply dictates a different cost structure. “Whenever you do stuff in a big way you can just do it cheaper per pound or per acre. It costs us a little more money per acre to raise a crop,” explains Billy Goat’s DellaBianca. Growers must pass this along to breweries, which face similar struggles with economics.
DellaBianca also contends that breweries have an incentive to purchase from larger brokers because they can buy all their hops from a single place under one invoice. Using various craft growers to source different varieties creates extra work for the brewery.
But despite the added work or cost, many breweries choose craft hops. Some do it altruistically out of community solidarity, but most do it for practical reasons; uniqueness, quality, and service.
Holden defines the draw for brewers. “They want to differentiate their beer, so they’ll work with us on selection of hops. They want to make those one-offs or seasonal beers special.” Billy Goat’s customers buy for similar reasons. “With our hop,s you know what you’re going to get. You can create a recipe around it and it brings consistency to your brewing,” says DellaBianca.
Fresher and Faster
When trying to make the next great beer, brewers thrive on predictability and quality. According to Michael Thomas, brewer at Colorado Boy Pizzeria & Brewery in Montrose, Colo., “Even though Billy Goat grows some common varieties like Nugget, Crystal, and Cascade, they have much better aroma and flavor profiles than what I can get from the national market.”
DellaBianca attributes some of this to his small operation’s faster processing ability. “We can get hops from the field and into a pellet and vacuum sealed Mylar bag within weeks as opposed to months,” he said. “I think it stays fresher. It remains more vibrant and has more pop to it. There’s less oxidation.”
Colorado Boy uses Billy Goat hops in every one of its beers. Says Thomas, “I’m always trying to make a better beer and source more locally. I’m happy to support another local business that supplies a great product and aligns with our brand’s goals.
“My goal is to eventually make all of my beers 10-mile beers, where all my ingredients are sourced as local as possible.”
Service is also a big part of why brewers go with craft providers. Being small gives hop growers a certain edge. Gooding describes her farm’s approach as “focusing on what our customers are wanting. How can we improve our processes to improve quality?” Holden feels similarly. “Our customer service is a little better. We have it more in tune with our customer base.”
In the end, being a craft hop grower is much like being a craft brewer. Both face challenges posed by economies of scale and larger competitors. However, their small size allows them to develop relationships with their customers, focus on quality, and be an integral part of their local communities.
Perhaps Billy Goat’s website best sums up what craft hop growers do. “The definition of craft is ‘an activity that involves making things skillfully by hand, often in a traditional way.’ Our hands are dirty every step of the way—every new shoot, every cone, every moisture reading, every pellet, we’re there with care and honesty creating an authentic product.”
This article originally appeared on craftbeer.com