Keeping hops alive: The Colorado farmers giving beer a local taste

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Colorado’s craft beverage producers are tapping into a best-in-class source of flavor. And it’s coming from the farmer up the road or the next county over, from the Western Slope to the Front Range.

A handful of small Colorado farmers grow and supply hops, the pungent flower that lends its punchiness to IPAs — and to a lesser degree other beers, hopped ciders and even a Chaffee County gin.

Some of those farmers are tapping into deep roots in Colorado agriculture. Colorado Hop Company, located in Platteville, just east of Longmont, is on a 65-acre family farm.

Childhood friends Scott Ziebell and fourth-generation farmer John Rademacher first put hops into the ground in 2013, officially forming the company in 2016 when those plants began to mature. Alongside the farm’s staple alfalfa crop, the company currently has 10 acres of hops planted and also runs a small co-op helping other small growers in the area with processing, including harvesting, drying, pelletizing and packaging.

Ziebell said the market for local hops continues to boom, noting a recent Colorado-centric harvest festival at Stodgy Brewing in Fort Collins. “We’re continuing to see the tide go in that direction. We’re continuing to see breweries open and be all Colorado, or as much Colorado as they can,” he said. As a result, their current 10-acre hop plot grows every year. By the 2024 harvest he said they should have 12 acres planted, and more the year after that. “We struggle supplying the demand every year.”

To be fair, it’s a small market compared to other crops grown in the state. Colorado’s agricultural industry produces a wide variety of offerings, from vast fields of corn and wheat, to wide swaths of potato fields, to fruit and vegetable crops denoted by their origin (Rocky Ford melons, Palisade peaches, Pueblo chiles).

Tigo Cruz, head cider maker at Fenceline Cider in Mancos, left, sinks bags filled with hops from Billy Goat Hop Farm in Montrose into a batch of Catkin Cider. (Corey Robinson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Compared with the states that dominate hop growing in the U.S., the Colorado hop market is even smaller, a poorly researched footnote in the wider world of hops. The industry group Hop Growers of America, in its 2022 statistical report, lists total U.S. hop acreage at 61,177 acres, down from just over 62,000 acres in 2021. The top hop-producing states are Washington (42,762 acres), Idaho (9,267) and Oregon (7,756).

The same report lists Colorado as growing 10 acres of hops in 2021 and 2022, down from 147 acres in 2018, 2019 and 2020. The data is obviously incorrect, but the message is clear: The Centennial State is an afterthought in the broader industry, producing a fraction of 1% of the entire U.S. market.

It’s too small to regularly feed the demand at Colorado’s largest craft breweries — places like Odell, Left Hand or Great Divide — but enough to supply smaller breweries, and that’s exactly where hop growers like Audrey Gehlhausen and Chris DellaBianca, founders of Billy Goat Hop Farm in Montrose, find their customers.

They bought a property in January 2017, then built out the processing side and put up trellises for the hop bines to climb. (Similar to vines, where the main stem of the plant sends out tendrils to support its vertical growth, bines rely on the main stem to grow around the supporting structure in an upward spiral.)

While building the business — which now encompasses 32 acres consisting of nine varieties of hops that range from wild southwestern native hops called Neomexicanus, to traditional hops such as Cascade and Nugget, to newer experimental varieties such as Michigan Copper — they pounded pavement to meet all the small brewers they could. Depending on the variety and a host of other variables, hop flavor and aroma can range from subtly spicy and floral, to piney and resinous, to intense citrus or tropical fruit, or just extremely bitter.

“We’ve gone door-to-door to easily over 800 breweries, in the van going to most breweries in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, along with Colorado,” Gehlhausen said.

Before choosing Montrose, they looked at locations around the Pacific Northwest, but felt they would struggle to separate themselves from the crowd when surrounded by 2,000-acre corporate hop farms. There were hops already being grown in Montrose and elsewhere in the state, which was reassuring. Paired with their love of skiing, their love of craft beer, plus DellaBianca’s degree in environmental biology and long history of “playing with plants,” she said the area was a perfect fit.

“We really enjoyed the craft beer industry, the people in it, the community around it. In general, Colorado cares about supporting local and Colorado-grown,” she said.

A crew at Billy Goat Hop Farm feeds hops into a machine that picks the cones from the bines. (David Aaron Ingrao Photography, Billy Goat Hop Farm)

Billy Goat’s efforts to harness that local character paid off in February, when they entered their Cascade hops, a cornerstone variety in craft beer production, in the Cascade Cup. Hosted by the Hop Quality Group, a nonprofit advocacy group, the competition pitted their hops in a sensory competition against some of the biggest farms in the country.

And for the first time, the cup left the Pacific Northwest to reside in Montrose with the winners at Billy Goat.

“It turned some heads up there at the convention,” Gehlhausen said. “It says to me that hops can be grown in places other than the Pacific Northwest. Sure, we’re not sixth-generation farms like a lot of places, but we had put a lot of time and energy and research and been in the industry, and are really going for quality.”

The win is a boost not just for Billy Goat but also for other hop growers in the state, according to Ziebell. It validates their work and lends credibility to the local industry.

“That’s absolutely huge. We grow some amazing Cascades here, a lot of great hops here,” he said. “I think a lot of the farms just haven’t entered in, so to see a farm enter into the competition and go up against the guys in the Northwest, it was brave of them and I’m proud of them for entering and showing that we have good soil here and a great climate for hops.”

Hops can be grown in places other than the Pacific Northwest.

— Audrey Gehlhausen, founder of Billy Goat Hop Farm in Montrose

While brewers are the primary market for hops, other craft beverage producers have learned to tap into the flavor and aroma they offer.

At Wood’s High Mountain Distillery in Salida, co-founder P.T. Wood said they’ve been using a small amount of Cascade hops, about 1,500 grams, in every 30-35 gallon batch of Mountain Hopped Gin they distill going back to 2014 or 2015.

“I was thinking about what we could do that would be different,” he said. “I got some hops and started to experiment with them. Originally I thought we would do a bierschnaps kind of thing, with whiskey and hops, but we couldn’t really get that to where I liked it, but it worked really well with the gin.” He originally sourced the hops from a farm in Paonia that transitioned to provide exclusively to a larger brewery, but it was right around the time that Billy Goat was opening.

“We bought hops from them the first year they harvested,” he said. “They run a really cool operation and it’s fun to work with the farmers.”

Working with Billy Goat fit right into Wood’s existing approach — buying local grain and local malted barley, as well as potatoes from the San Luis Valley. They buy a relatively small amount of fresh, unprocessed hops known as “wet hops” (not dried yet or pelletized into a shelf-stable form resembling green rabbit food), less than 50 pounds every year, and divide them up into zipper-top bags to be frozen. That way they’re using whole, wet hops throughout the year.

Pellet hops would be unworkable with the method Wood uses, suspending the hops above the liquid level so that only the vapor being distilled makes contact with them and the other botanicals, which include cardamom, coriander, star anise, grains of paradise, and elderflower, the last of which also helps to reinforce “that earthy, floral quality” he’s after with the Mountain Hopped Gin. He said the approach extracts the citrus and floral qualities he’s looking for from the hops, “without the bitterness and the IPA notes that you get with hops.”

“I think it’s important to not macerate the hops. We experimented with that originally, and it made for a really bitter, horrible liquor, so just having those open flowers for the vapor to run through is critical,” he said.

Cruz steeps hops in a barrel of Catkin Cider. (Corey Robinson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Not just for beer

Colorado’s cideries are also getting in on the action. Colorado Cider Company in Denver, opening in 2011 as the first commercial cidery in the state and one of the early entrants in the country, has been sourcing ingredients such as cherries and apricots from around the state depending on the year’s harvest. Founder Brad Page followed up by purchasing property on the Western Slope and started planting trees in 2012. He’s been making an annual fresh-hopped cider for several years, originally with a now-defunct hop farm in Paonia and currently with Billy Goat.

Page said his history as a pub brewer helped to inform the original decision to use hops in a cider. “It was an ingredient that I had experience with, and it just seemed to work,” he said. “Up in Yakima (Valley, Washington), the hop region and the apple region are the same. It’s the same in Europe.”

Colorado Cider used the Montrose farm’s Comet hops on a fresh-hop version of their staple Grasshop-ah hopped cider, producing about 150 gallons this year of the fresh-hopped variation. He said the base might be the same, but the change in hops makes a profound difference.

“Fresh hops are definitely a different animal,” he said. “This year, the Comets are pretty fantastic. It’s almost a tropical fruit character, a little bit of citrus.”

In the southwestern corner of the state, a few hours’ drive from Billy Goat, Fenceline Cider has been leaning on hops as a bridge to the beer drinkers who pass through their tasting room, located in Mancos, between Durango and Cortez, since it opened five years ago.

“We’re in a small town in Montezuma County where there used to be a really rich cider industry,” head cider maker Tigo Cruz said. “The apples that came out of this county used to outproduce Washington. There’s a lot of trees here that, over the last century through drought, through Prohibition, were pushed to the wayside and not taken care of, but they’re still there.”

When opening their tasting room in early 2018, aiming to tap into a local resource with a rich history that was largely going to waste, the Fenceline staff formulated a hopped cider, called Catkin, to have something that craft beer drinkers could relate to.

Cruz measures hops to add to the Catkin Cider. (Corey Robinson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“As I’ve been here the last five years, I’ve seen the need for a gateway cider for beer drinkers,” Cruz said. “It’s heavy beer country here. It was a good in-between, making the connection between beer and hops, something that they might already be a little knowledgeable about.”

Because the cider isn’t heated, the hops don’t imbue it with any bitterness, lending it a more delicate character, and it’s been popular enough to keep available as a year-round product.

“It’s one of my personal favorites,” Cruz said. “I’m not an IPA guy whatsoever, but I love the floral aspect in our hop cider.”

There have been different iterations of it over the years, starting with commercially available domestic hops, at one point using German hops, and moving to locally sourced Cascade and Cashmere hops from Billy Goat when Cruz moved into the head cider maker role. 

Cruz said they approach sourcing with a conscious desire to keep it as local as possible as the cidery works to produce about 15,000 gallons of cider a year, with about 80% of that coming from Montezuma or La Plata county apples. Fenceline works with the Montezuma Orchard Restoration Project. Pears and other fruits used in their brews are local, too. And a bourbon-barrel cider is made in barrels sourced outside of Durango. Fenceline also operates a food truck that offers local meat and produce.

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“Where we actually press our apples, there’s a small orchard that was planted in 1890 that is actually one of our best producers,” he said. “We’re trying to keep it in Colorado as much as we can.”

For farmers and producers like him, that choice will ultimately trickle down to the consumer experience. Gehlhausen, from Billy Goat, describes it as a return to centuries-old principles, and said she hopes the Cascade Cup win brings some attention back to an element of brewing rooted in local agriculture.

“Traditionally, every town had their brewery and their beer, and the hops that grew in that village. That’s what they used. That’s ultimately how we came up with different styles of beer to begin with,” she said. 

“This is farming and agriculture, we’re not mass-producing these things in a factory. That’s the joy of hops being grown in different regions, with different summers and different seasons and amounts of rain or sun. They put these little nuances in the flavors and aromas of the hops.”