The Perfect Latitude for Beer

Big Sky Hops Farm in Bigfork is beginning to sell directly to local breweries with Montana-grown flavors

By Maggie Dresser
Siblings Zac and Maddy Jones, co-owners of Big Sky Hops Farm, are pictured in their hop field in Bigfork on Sept. 16, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Big Sky Hops Farm co-owner Maddy Jones says the 48th parallel north of Bigfork is the perfect latitude for growing hop plants, the cone-shaped flower used to flavor beer.

Which is why the Flathead Valley provides an ideal environment for hop farming, along with the Yakima Valley in Washington, Bonners Ferry in Idaho and locations in Germany, Maddy says. The long daylight hours and relatively temperate climate create excellent conditions, one of the reasons that she, along with her brother Zac and their parents Mitch and Anne, ventured into the hops business.

As fourth-generation small business owners, Maddy and Zac wanted to follow their dad’s footsteps to run their own. Since Mitch and Anne bought a cherry orchard in 2004, Maddy and Zac have helped operate Big Sky Orchards, but wanted to venture beyond the cherry business.

After researching trendy crops, they discovered hops farming required a lot of the same equipment they already used for cherries. The equally narrow rows used the same sprayers and tractors, reducing machinery costs.

“We just thought it’d be something fun that has a different harvest time,” Maddy said. “We just decided to go for it.” After purchasing 80 acres in Bigfork, the Joneses planted 10,000 plants, which grow on an 18-foot trellis, on 10 acres. With a degree in horticulture, Zac manages disease control, while Maddy has a business degree and handles sales.

In their third harvest, this is the first year the Joneses have been able to sell directly to local breweries now that their hops cones have matured and they have purchased a hops processor. Maddy says maturation takes three to five years.

Brewers use mostly dried hops for beer, which adds a bitter flavor in comparison to wet hops, which are fresh, and can be stored for years after the cones are transformed into pellets resembling rabbit food. Eleven pounds of hops in pellet form can fit in an 18-by-18-inch bag, making it much easier to ship.

The Joneses bought the hop processing plant with help from a Montana Growth Through Agriculture grant. Before this year, they had been selling hops to Glacier Hops Ranch in Whitefish where they are processed into “Hopzoil” and sold to brewers around the world. The oil is cheaper to ship, making it marketable for countries that don’t have the ideal hop-farming climate, like Nepal.

“They love the hop oil because they can use American hops, which is trendy right now,” Maddy said. “You can send hops in time for them to be fresh in Nepal. The hop oil is less expensive to ship and easier to distribute.”

With the processing plant and mature flowers, the Joneses’ ultimate goal is to sell hops to brewers across the valley and beyond. But Maddy says they have been waiting until they can produce the highest quality hops before promoting the product. So far, Glacier Brewing Company and Flathead Lake Brewing Company have purchased hops, while Western Cider in Missoula and Lewis and Clark Brewing Company in Helena have used the hop oil.

“The biggest thing with local brewers is we bring the highest quality hops to them,” Maddy said. “So we had to make sure our pellets were perfect before we reached out to them because they have access to hops all over the world. For them to spend extra money on local hops and support local farms, it has to be the best.”

Now, Big Sky Hops Farm has six varieties: Ahhhroma, Mackinac, Michigan Copper, Saaz, Triumph and Cashmere. Each has different acid levels to create unique flavors. Maddy emphasizes the importance of having a variety of hops since craft brewers often switch up their beers.

While there is no shortage of hop farms around the world, the Joneses want to add to Montana’s home-grown reputation.

“Brewers don’t need Montana hops,” Maddy said. “But a lot of them want it and just being able to say, ‘Montana malt, Montana barley, Montana hops’ is a pretty big deal and people love that.”

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