WHITEFISH – Just a few miles off U.S. Highway 93, Randy Scott’s hops farm sat in the mid-August sun, the plants climbing support strings suspended 18 feet in the air, and the flavor-packed cones hung heavy and full.
Taking root just last year, the 4,100 plants had one last afternoon to sway in the summer breeze before Scott, his wife, sons, and friends took to the 4-acre plot to reap what they had spent a year building, sowing, watering, and fertilizing.
It took several days, but the little farm ended up producing more than 1,000 pounds of hops in three varieties – Cascade, Centennial, and Ahh-roma.
Tom Britz, who spearheaded the hops movement in the Flathead Valley with the creation of Glacier Hops Ranch four years ago, looked at the hops plants from under the brim of his cowboy hat, considering the entire plot carefully.
Everything pulled from those plants would end up at his processing facility, since the Scott farm is now an affiliate grower of Glacier Hops Ranch. Some were sold immediately to Great Northern Brewing Company in Whitefish for its Fresh Hop Ale, and another bulk went to Kettlehouse Brewing in Missoula for a similar creation. In all, the half-ton of hops exceeded expectations.
“The volume that we got and the quality that we got off of that first-year field was so much better than my first year, which tells me that maybe we’ve figured out a few things over the last four years,” Britz said in an interview after the harvest was complete. “I would expect an exponentially greater field next year.”
Hops is a relative newcomer to the agriculture scene in the Flathead Valley, with Britz’s farm scratching into the dirt four years ago with a research patch dedicated to more than 40 kinds of hops varieties, testing to see what grows the best here.
For the most part, the bitter, green, conic flowers are used for flavoring and stabilizing beer, but other applications, such as value-added oil products or sleep-promoting hops pillows, are possible as well.
Since the hops movement started in earnest here, Montana-grown hops have found a piece of the market as microbreweries continue to flourish within the state and nationwide. According to the Brewers Association, there were 2,401 craft breweries nationwide in 2012. That number exploded to 4,225 in 2015, and the pace is such in 2016 that a new brewery opens in this country about every nine hours.
In Montana, the Montana Brewers Association reports 53 licensed brewers in the state, compared to 26 operating in 2009. Britz noted that the average barrel of beer from a large manufacturer uses about 0.15 pounds of hops, whereas craft brewers use about 1.46 pounds per barrel.
And last year, Britz was elected to the newly formed Small Grower Council of the Hop Growers of America, connecting the Flathead to the main growing regions in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.
After determining that yes, hops do in fact grow well here, especially the varietals grown at the Scott farm, the next phase of the project was determining what to do with those hops.
“There’s not an unlimited demand for Montana-grown hops,” Britz said. “It’s a process to build the market and be able to make sure that we can deliver quality hops that are processed.”
Processing hops is a major factor in production, Britz said, because once their bines are cut, a 24-hour countdown begins.
“Fresh hops have such a narrow window, you have to (process them) within 24 hours,” he said.
At the Scott farm, that meant driving about eight miles to Britz’s farm, where he has a processor that is running at about full capacity with the hops from Scott and another affiliate grower in Bigfork with about 10 acres of production.
But there needs to be a more centralized processing facility if more farmers intend on putting product out there, Britz said. Distance is an issue, he said, because of the hops’ fragility. They’ve determined the Mission Valley is too far from his current processing plant, as is Eureka.
“I’ve had lots of inquiries from all over western Montana; if you cut them and have to transport them here, you’ve got trucking time, diesel, wear and tear, it adds to the cost for the grower and the quality degrades,” Britz said. “Everything that we’re trying to get out of these hops relates to the very volatile oils and acids. These compounds will oxidize and degrade in a very short period of time if they’re not harvested and processed quickly.”
Randy Scott said the land on which he now grows hops was an empty field before, where they would put horses or just cut the grass for forage. After discussing the possibility for hops with Britz, the Scott family went forward with the project and turned the 4-acre patch into full-production acreage.
It was harder to build the infrastructure than he thought it would be, Scott said, but he had confidence through the whole process because of the leadership and knowledge provided by Britz and his research patch, along with Pat McGlynn, the county’s extension agent.
That confidence also came from knowing the hops he was planting in the ground last May 14 were already going to a beer producer.
“It’s nice to have the experience and it’s nice to have it all sold before you put the infrastructure in place,” Scott said.
Britz said there are other hops growers in the valley who are not affiliates of his organization, but the fledgling market isn’t quite ready to add more product. Once they allow for more growth, and the Flathead hops find their niche in the market, Britz said he would look at adding more farmed acreage through affiliates.
“We’re willing to take on more affiliate growers, but not right now,” he said. “We’re still figuring it out and we want to make sure we do a really good job with the growers we’re working with.”
Growth has to be scaled equally, and can’t be rushed. Just because some growers have had success with their hops in local and regional brews, it doesn’t mean the market is ready to support more. Even Britz’s own farm is scaling back its future projects – what was supposed to be 17 to 19 new production acres was cut to 7 acres to be more sustainable.
Britz’s farm, which is only about six miles from the Scott farm as the crow flies, was also decimated by a mid-summer hailstorm that deposited three inches of ice chunks, he said. The Scott farm wasn’t touched, but Britz lost about 80 percent of his production.
“In 20 years living here it was the worst hailstorm I’ve seen,” Britz said. “It damaged our plants so badly our yield in the research plot was about 20 percent of what it was last year.”
But growth looks like it is on the horizon, especially as craft breweries continue to increase their share of the beer market. Hops farmers are hoping to fill a niche demand for Montana-grown product, and how the hops grown here are different from other places, and thus are marketed differently.
It’s all comes down to time, and growing sustainably, not unlike a farm itself.
“Once we have built the market, then that opens the door for ramping up the scale of production. We’re just not quite there yet,” Britz said.
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