A farm that grows cold-hardy hops is doing for the state’s craft beer industry what cold-hardy grapes did for northern winemaking.
By Adam Overland
Thirty miles north of Minneapolis on an early September day, more than 70 volunteers have gathered on a small farm near Ham Lake. No corn, wheat, or soy is grown here. Instead, vines—technically, bines—reach 20 feet in the air. Farmers Eric Sannerud (B.S. ’13), left, Ben Boo (B.S. ’14), right, and Brian Krohn, a Ph.D. candidate in natural resource science and management at the University of Minnesota, are growing a crop not seen in Minnesota or much else of the Midwest since the late 1800s: hops. The novelty of a hops-picking party—and the promise of beer—has made for a pretty good turnout at the farm, Mighty Axe Hops Hub.
Hops are what makes beer smell like beer. They look like little green pinecones, but with a light, papery texture. Pull one down off a bine, have a sniff, and an unmistakable scent hits you. As University of Minnesota hops researcher Charlie Rohwer (Ph.D. ’08) says, “Without hops, beer would taste kind of like a not-fruity wine cooler. It balances the sweet flavor of the malt and adds another layer of complexity and aroma to the beer.”
Rohwer began studying how hops grow in Minnesota in 2010. Four years later he’s finding which among dozens of varieties grow well here and which methods work best for farmers. He even plans to breed a new variety just for Minnesota. Meanwhile, growers are going full steam ahead, with more than 50 small farms intended or under way across the state within just the past two years, according to the newly formed Minnesota Hop Growers Association.
Credit the booming microbrewery industry for fomenting a rising demand for hops. Today, there are more craft breweries in the United States than at any other time since the 1870s, and sales of craft beers continue to rise, according to the U.S. Brewers Association (USBA). Minnesota is 21st in the nation in breweries per capita, up about five notches in the past few years. Statewide there are more than 52 craft breweries, making the state 10th nationwide in volume of craft beer produced. According to the 2012 USBA economic impact report, that translates into a $750 million boost to the economy.
All that brewing takes millions of dollars worth of hops—almost all of which are currently imported from Oregon, Idaho, and Washington. “A lot of craft brewers are interested in hops that are grown locally—and in Minnesota, you can’t buy locally grown hops,” says Rohwer.
Sannerud and the Mighty Axe volunteer crew are harvesting the farm’s first crop of just a quarter acre, which is already spoken for. Next year Mighty Axe will grow a full acre—and it’s already spoken for. Sannerud expects the farm to be financially sustainable at just four acres, a point he hopes to reach within two years, and plans eventually to expand to eight acres.
“We continue to collect letters of intent from brewers who want local hops,” says Sannerud. “We have commitments for more than 1,000 percent of what we will produce—ever. The market is much bigger than all the farms Minnesota has right now.”
Sannerud founded Mighty Axe in 2013. He met friend and Mighty Axe partners Boo and Krohn through the Acara Institute, an entrepreneurship program for students sponsored by the U’s Institute on the Environment. Through Acara, student teams develop proposals for addressing societal and environmental issues. The proposals can be submitted to the Acara Challenge, where winners receive $1,000 startup money and are nominated for up to $5,000 in additional venture funding. Mighty Axe Hops Hub won both and put the money to use buying poles, twine, wire, starter plants, and irrigation systems needed to make a hops farm a reality. “It’s one of the coolest things that the University does, as far as supporting entrepreneurship in this state,” says Sannerud.
In addition to growing hops, Sannerud aspires to have Mighty Axe Hops Hub help establish some standards for the industry—hence the “hubs” part. Right now, he says, it’s a free-for-all. “We love and believe in this industry and we want it to grow, but we also aren’t unrealistic about where it’s at—it’s really small. It’s really unorganized. Quality is all over the place, and there are zero standards. But it’s an immature industry—this is how they all start,” he says.
The vision for the Hub is that it will offer processing, packaging, and marketing to farms across the state and make Minnesota Mighty Axe Hops a brand. “Our goal is to cultivate a brand around this product, so when you go to drink at a taproom, our name is there: ‘Made with Mighty Axe.’”
Thirty years ago there wasn’t much of a wine industry in Minnesota. But in the 1980s the U began researching grapes that could tolerate Minnesota winters. Today, cold-hardy wine grapes developed by the University of Minnesota and private breeders contribute about $60 million annually to the state’s economy. Will the same be true of cold-hardy hops in another 30 years? There’s plenty of reason to expect a mighty change.