Will Witman’s small Niwot farm illustrates the problem with Colorado’s hop industry. To get started, he had to built an expensive, complex trellis system for the plants to hang from, and harvesting them is labor intensive.
“We’re very much a kind of mom-and-pop kind of farm here,” says Witman. “We’re small scale and we do things mostly by hand.”
It’s not clear how many hop acres there are in Colorado, partly because many farms are small operations, making the ingredient scarce and expensive. That’s forcing the state’s craft breweries get more than 95 percent of their hops from out-of-state, according to a survey by CU-Boulder researchers.
Local still a luxury
Bryan Leavelle, the co-owner of the Denver brewery Our Mutual Friend, says that’s a shame. Our Mutual Friend is one of the only breweries in the state committed to using all local ingredients.
“Behind the fact that you can make an easy buck if you slap local or organic on the front of your business, there are some really, really important reasons to do it,” says Leavelle. “From supporting your state, supporting your community, [to] getting some really local, unique stuff.”
It’s nearly impossible, though, to get enough local hops, so he signed a lease on a nearby garden to grow his own next year.
Not every brewer can or wants to do that, according Jason Hanson a researcher for CU-Boulder’s Center of the American West.
“Local has always been a choice that people are making, not because they have to or because of economic reasons, but because they think it’s better,” Hanson says.
He says finding enough local hops in Colorado has been a problem stretching back more than a century to when the Rocky Mountain Brewery tapped its first keg in Denver in 1859.
“The first beers made in the city were ‘innocent of hops’ ” explains Hanson.
With limited hop farms and few shipping lines, the brewers had to use what they had sparingly.
Coors tries to set a trend
The problem is still felt today in the Coors brewery in Golden. Where massive copper kettles churn out Coors and Coors Light. Off to the side, are two much smaller research and development kettles that brew something very different: Colorado Native, which only uses ingredients sourced from within the state.
The beer was an intriguing concept when it was tossed around the Coors brain trust several years ago.
“There were some eyebrows raised,” says Glenn Knippenberg who runs the business side of things for AC Golden which brews Colorado Native for MillerCoors. “But we made the point that the consumers today are moving more in this direction of consuming locally produced products. And we want to be not where the puck is now, we want to be where it’s going to be.”
Knippenberg quickly discovered there were limited hops. So to stimulate planting, he pays growers about three times the market rate.
“Quite simply, Colorado Native can only get as big as the hop supply in Colorado,” says Knippenberg.
AC Golden has spurred farmers on the Western Slope to plant about 80 acres of hops. That’s still a tiny fraction of 29,000 acres devoted to hops in Washington state. Colorado Native hops must be shipped to the northwest to be dried and processed, and then shipped back.
Farms have been slow to respond to demand, partly because the demand is relatively new.
“We didn’t start off as a brewery," says Zach Weakland, a brewer near Greeley who grows all his own hops. "We started off as a hop farm, and we had a heck of a time trying to sell any of our hops to any breweries.”
So he started High Hops Brewery in 2007 to use the hops himself.
Weakland stands in his hop field which was recently picked clean by an army of volunteers. He’s confident Colorado farmers will eventually catch up to the demand for local hops.
“As the market grows, so will the agriculture and hopefully they feed off of each other,” says Weakland.
Local farmers don’t want to miss out on the state’s craft beer boom. The industry had $826 million in economic impact last year.