Despite craft beer boom, not much hoppin’ on Illinois farms

Editor’s note: The Great Lakes Hop Working Group is funded by a grant from the North Central Integrated Pest Management Center.

Reprinted from the Chicago Tribune

By Greg Trotter 

gtrotter@chicagotribune.com

While Chicago’s craft beer scene is rich and growing, the hop farming craze has yet to fully take root in Illinois.

For context: Michigan, top hop producer in the Midwest, will have more than 800 acres of the crop, a key ingredient used to flavor popular craft beer styles such as India pale ales, planted by the end of the year. Washington, Oregon and Idaho — where the vast majority of hops in the U.S. are grown — collectively have more than 50,000 acres that will be harvested this year.

Illinois has 30.

Hop farms are popping up throughout the Midwest, a trend driven by craft beer’s continued growth running parallel to the increasing popularity of locally grown food. But in Illinois, unlike in neighboring Michigan, there’s no state university-coordinated effort among brewers and growers to break down potential barriers to business. There’s no research underway to determine the best varieties for Illinois farmers to grow that might give them a competitive edge.

And while hop farming yields more revenue per acre than commodities, it also requires significant investment to get started.

“There’s a hesitancy to invest in the land itself when we’re not in a proven market. So we’re trying to prove the market and show that we’re producing high-quality hops and that people want them,” said Rich Hauser, president of Bier Blume Farms in Lena, a small town in northwestern Illinois.

Bier Blume Farms, in its third growing season, expects to harvest about 3,000 pounds of Cascade and Chinook hops from three acres of land, Hauser said, all of which will be sold to local breweries. Another five acres have been planted. Eventually, Hauser said, the plan is to form partnerships with Chicago brewpubs and expand the farm to more than 40 acres.

In general, it’s still cheaper for a Chicago brewery to buy hops from Washington than Illinois.

“That’s the big issue. The local farmers tend to grow more popular strains (of hops) that, unfortunately, we can get cheaper elsewhere,” said Quintin Cole, co-founder of Vice District Brewing, a taproom in the South Loop.

Cole and Hauser have engaged in preliminary talks, they both said, but haven’t yet reached an agreement. Like most Chicago brewers, Cole said Vice District sources most of its hops from Washington and Oregon, though it has started buying some from Hop Head Farms in Michigan.

Cole said he hopes more investment and collaboration will make it easier to buy local. If Illinois farms were to grow proprietary varieties of hops unique to the region, as some do in the Northwest, that would also present a tantalizing opportunity, Cole said, though he acknowledged developing such strains can be a lengthy process.

Hop-heavy beers, such as India pale ales, continue to lead a craft beer movement that’s growing into a mature industry. As of July 10, craft IPAs had brought in $562.4 million in year-to-date sales, an increase of almost 30 percent from the same period a year ago, according to data from Chicago-based market research firm IRI that doesn’t include liquor stores or Costco.

And as of June 30, a record-high 4,656 breweries were operating in the U.S., an increase of 917 breweries from the same period a year ago, according to the Brewers Association, a trade group representing small and independent breweries.

In other words, the craft beer bubble has not burst, but breweries are facing more competition. And while hop farms in the Pacific Northwest are growing to meet demand, there are opportunities for Midwest farmers looking to capitalize on the abundant need for hops.

“For craft brewers looking for ways to differentiate, having local input is a good way to go,” said Bart Watson, an economist with the Brewers Association.

But it doesn’t come cheap. Starting from scratch, a single acre of hops requires an investment of at least $10,000 to $12,000, Hauser said. Growing hops involves a trellis system and other equipment for spraying the plants and picking the hops. And though some brewers use wet hops for seasonal ales, hops usually need to be dried and turned into pellets, which also requires specialized machinery. And for small farms starting out, those costs have to be passed on to the brewer until economies of scale can be realized — unless partnerships can be formed with other hop farms to help share the cost.

Studying such challenges and identifying solutions have become academic pursuits. In December 2014, Michigan State University convened the Great Lakes Hop Working Group — a collaborative group of various universities, including the University of Illinois, that’s intended to prioritize region-specific problems and best practices.

At Michigan State University Extension, educators Rob Sirrine and Erin Lizotte have led the way in research on what varieties grow best in Michigan and how to manage pests and soil quality issues. Sirrine has also helped connect farmers to brewers in the state.

Michigan has some built-in advantages over Illinois when it comes to hop farming. For example, it’s easier for some Michigan fruit farms on the lakeshore that had previously grown grapes to break into hop farming because they already have the trellis system and other equipment, Sirrine said.

And Michigan brewers are buying in. As one example, the New Holland Brewing Company recently opened a brewpub in Holland committed to using only Michigan-grown ingredients, including hops.

“Overall, there’s increasing demand for American hops globally,” Sirrine said. “You’re also helped by the farm-to-table, farm-to-glass, grow-local movement.”

Grant McCarty, Sirrine’s counterpart at the University of Illinois Extension in Rockford, would like to see some of that momentum in Illinois. As part of his role as local food and small farm extension educator, McCarty acts as a liaison between the few Illinois hop farmers and the broader regional resources of the Great Lakes Hop Working Group.

“Part of the challenge is figuring out who the buyer is going to be,” McCarty said. “Before you start investing in the farming, you have to figure out how the hops are going to be sold.”

The opposite is also true: Investment is needed to produce enough hops at a consistent quality to entice Illinois brewers.

Dick Faltz hopes to step into that void. Faltz, 70, founded Fox Valley Winery in Oswego in 1999. Encouraged by his three sons to tap into the craft beer movement, Faltz decided to designate 4.5 acres of the 170-acre farm for hops in 2013. And so Fox Valley Hops was born.

This year, Faltz said he expects to harvest about 6,000 pounds, all of which is contracted for Tangled Roots Brewing Company in nearby Ottawa. Next year, Faltz hopes to add another 90 acres, with the eventual goal of growing hops on more than 200 acres in LaSalle County.

“I see a bright future. To say we’re there yet — we’re not. But it’s a very young industry,” Faltz said.

 

 

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