Whether you're powerfully thirsty, or simply have a few acres of well-drained farmland and the desire to get in on the ground-level of the newest locavore trend, I have one word for you: hops.
Hops, of course, are the ingredient added to beer to make it "hoppy" — that is, astringent, perky, brisk, floral- and spicy-scented, and above all, bitter. They're in season right now; hops harvesting has been taking place all through Minnesota, Wisconsin, and the Dakotas over the past month, and the first few weeks of October will see the release of a number of local "wet hopped" beers which showcase the aromatic complexity of fresh hops.
Surly "Wet" will be released Oct. 10, at Tracy's Saloon, after which it will be distributed around the state.
Lift Bridge Brewery "Harvestor" is due out on Oct. 8 at the Stillwater Harvest Festival, and will go to bars after that.
The Brau Brothers "100 Yard Dash", from Lucan, Minn., is available now.
I talked to Todd Haug, brewer at Surly, and he told me that the difference between fresh hops and the more typical dry hops used for beer brewing, is like the difference between fresh basil and dried basil — they're very different animals, as it were. They also require a completely different brewing process.
Dried hops are typically "pelletized," ground into a sort of hop flour, then compressed and squeezed through a form so they come out looking a little like dry pet food.
Fresh hops are much bigger, heavier, and harder to manipulate, and they can't go into big-scale brewing equipment, because that equipment is designed for pelletized hops. But using fresh hops produces beer of such aromatic complexity, and such deliciousness, that Haug actually had a few 600 gallon tanks, called "hop backs," constructed just to allow Surly to make this wet hopped beer.
"For people who live in the major hops growing regions, it's a huge marker in the year," Haug told me. It's a way for beer makers to celebrate and commemorate beer's connection to the land. In Washington State's Yakima Valley, for example, the 9th annual Fresh Hop Ale Festival will take place this weekend, with all the major breweries releasing their own beers made with just-harvested hops. Could we see a similar season in Minnesota and Wisconsin one day? That's not at all far-fetched.
In the 19th century, Wisconsin was actually the United States' leading hops-producer, and there are a number of folks who think Minnesota and Wisconsin could be big again, and soon.
One of those folks is Matt Sweeny, who runs what he calls a "demonstration sustainable hops yard" called Simple Earth Hops in Dodgeville, Wis., southeast of Madison. (A hops farm is called a hops yard.) He has been trying to revive hops growing in Wisconsin, and told me a little about how it works.
Hops grow in much the same way as wine grapes, on a trellis about 15 feet high. Sweeny made his by petitioning the Wisconsin DNR for permits to log some black locust trees, which he then planted in 4-feet-deep holes, filling in the holes with gravel. He plants his hops in 100-yard rows, with two poles on each end, and a pole in the middle, and rope strung between them. He threads strings of twine down to the ground, and the young hops plants, called rhizomes, climb up the strings. They get to the top, they flower, and then in the fall he cuts the whole plant down and harvests the cones. The plants are very hardy perennials, and once they get established, typically in their second year after, they can live for 25 years. The harvested hops can be sold fresh, for use in these fresh-hopped beers that will be released the next few weeks, or they can be dried and pelletized for later sale and use.
Getting the hops from the vines turned into pellets can be a trick in Minnesota and Wisconsin, which lack the big hops drying facilities found in the Yakima Valley. Sweeny told me that he improvised his own hops-drying equipment with space heaters, fans, and screens, and that there are a number of co-ops springing up, especially in western and central Wisconsin, where hops growers are pooling their resources to create production and marketing units.
Gorst Valley Hops will go so far as to work with potential growers to analyze land, set up trellises, and then receive, process, and market the resulting hops cones under a contract-growing arrangement.
Sweeny said he was seeing interest in his own hop yard from young people casting around for new ideas about what to do with the family farm, and retirees looking for a new product that takes less work. While the set-up costs can be substantial, Sweeny told me that the back-of-the-envelope calculation he makes is that a hops grower can plan on earning $8,000 to $12,000 per acre for good hops that can be sold to a microbrewer willing to pay a premium for a top-of-the-line product.
"I'm pushing for this whole industry to be different," Sweeny told me. He wants local producers to sell to local brewers, build relationships, and see themselves as partners to brewers, who in general are artisans or craftspeople and whop don't see themselves as run-of-the-mill widget makers.
Haug, from Surly, said it's not unrealistic for new hops growers to expect to sell their product to local brewers, rather than a national brewer.
"The reality is the craft beer movement has way outpaced the agriculture," Haug told me. "I understand that farmers have been reluctant to get on any bandwagon, because they've seen fads over the years, but if growers want to raise hops that cater to craft brewing, which means the aroma varieties, the market's here."
And Americans are now happy to pay for hoppy beer, which wasn't the case maybe 10 years ago. "And three years ago there weren't as many small breweries as there are now," he said. "If [hops growers] can grow them, and process them so someone can store them, they'll sell everything."
To grow hops in your backyard garden, place an order with Northern Brewer. They typically take orders in February and March for April delivery of live plants.
To taste fresh hopped beers, look for Surly "Wet" on Oct. 10 at Tracy's Saloon; Lift Bridge Brewery "Harvestor" on Oct. 8 at the Stillwater Harvest Festival; or "100 Yard Dash" from Brau Brothers Brewing, which should be out now.
And move fast, because they're highly sought after beers, and will likely disappear before Halloween.
Dara Moskowitz-Grumdahl is a senior editor at Minnesota Monthly, and a five time James Beard Award winner.