Local hops add flavor to Northland brewing scene
There are more than two dozen craft breweries in operation or in the works in the Northland, part of a boom in beer and spirits production in the region in recent years.
The local focus of those breweries and also the vibrant homebrewing scene is not just contained in the perfect pint — it extends to some of the ingredients that make that beer possible.
Ryan Melton of Harbor Hops in Two Harbors started his "hop grow" in 2012. Owned and operated by Melton and his wife, Lori, Harbor Hops has about a half-acre dedicated to growing hops. The Meltons have focused on homebrewers as their customers for the past few years.
"It's been lots of learning," he said. "But last year was a bumper crop."
Hops, the conical flowers of the hop plant, are one of the main ingredients in beer, along with barley, water and yeast. Hops are used for flavoring and aroma. Numerous varieties exist, each with their own unique characteristics, according to the website All About Beer. Varieties are differentiated by international bittering units, or IBUs. Beers that have hops with a high IBU will have a more bitter flavor, such as an IPA, or India Pale Ale.
The hop plant is a climbing plant. It's usually tied to a trellis to train the "bines," or vines without tendrils, which can grow up to 20 feet high, explained Susan Thompson of North Road Hops in Hovland.
Thompson's hop grow, which she plans on doubling in size to two-thirds of an acre by the end of the fall, is managed with organic farming practices, though it is not certified organic.
Growing hops can be an intensive gardening endeavor that begins with cutting the bines back once they emerge in the spring. It can take four to five years for a crop to be established.
The climate of the region does not have too great an effect on hop plants, according to the local growers, outside of having a shorter growing season than other areas.
"Historically, they are grown at the 47th latitude," Thompson said. "Germany and the west coast — Oregon, Washington — all are grown at the same latitude as here."
"Humidity is the biggest problem — it's too high here," Melton said. "That's why many are grown out west."
Melton said high humidity was the biggest reason the industry died out in this region in the 1800s, which is when hops were introduced to the area. Some of those plants introduced to the area more than 100 years ago still call the region home — although now they grow wild.
"They were brought over by homesteaders," Thompson said. "Sweden, Norway, Germany or wherever people came from where they brewed their own beer."
Melton said they can still be found in the area, often near an old homestead and where they have drifted into the woods. Wild hops are much more widespread in the southern half of Minnesota.
"I found some at Gooseberry Falls," he said, and added that samples were taken by the Minnesota Hop Growers Association to determine the genetics. "But where I grew up in Rochester, they are everywhere."
Thompson said the testing is needed because without knowing the genetics of the wild hop, using it in brewing would result in a bit of a wild card as far as the flavor profile.
Thompson said she is intrigued at the possibilities, though.
"It is interesting how they keep coming back up without any pruning, fertilization, or special attention," she said. "It really speaks to the character of the plant."
Hops can be added to the brewing process in two ways, the growers said — either as dry hops or wet.
Wet-hopping is a time-sensitive process in which the hops need to be added into the brewing process within 24 hours of being picked.
"It makes a product that only tastes like that once a year," Thompson said, noting that Voyageur Brewing Company in Grand Marais has used both wet and dry hops that she has grown.
It is that uniqueness that Thompson credits as the appeal of locally grown hops.
"It allows the (brewers) to be creative," she said. "And is such a variety for consumers."
That ability to be creative is why Melton said most of his customers tend to be homebrewers.
"Many of the breweries have a reputation on the line that is based on the taste of their beer," he said. "Mass-produced hops can offer more consistency."
He also noted that many brewers do not have the equipment to use whole hops.
Melton said even though he has no intention of expanding his business, he is excited about the surge of independent brewing in the area — and said that connecting with a small brewer who would get behind some experimentation with his hops would be great exposure.
"I love that people are expanding their palates and trying new things," he said, describing his foray into hop growing as one that he never expected to get rich from, but more of a passion.
While a love of gardening and beer got Thompson started, it is people that keep her going.
"It's about relationships with local people. They are excited to get this ingredient from you," she said. "I get to provide a little piece of the puzzle."
- Harbor Hops: harborhops.com
- North Road Hops: northroadhops.com
- Minnesota Hop Growers Association: mhga.org
Inside the Sunday (April 23) paper, News Tribune subscribers will find an issue of DNT Extra focusing on the craft beer and spirits boom in the Northland.
If you're not a subscriber — or if you'd like additional copies of DNT Extra — they're available for $4 at the News Tribune offices. And to subscribe, call (800) 456-8080.