Montana State University

Inaugural community hop harvest draws local brewers

September 24, 2009 -- Melynda Harrison, MSU News Service


MSU plant science and plant pathology faculty Tom Blake, center, with hop selection during the first annual hop harvest Saturday at the Bozeman Area Teaching Farm. (MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.)   High-Res Available

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Homebrewers and professional beer brewers gathered at the Bozeman Area Research and Teaching (BART) farm Saturday for Montana State University's first hop harvest. The community was invited to gather as much of the important beer ingredient as they wanted.

Tom and Victoria Blake, both barley geneticists and faculty in the Department of Plant Science and Plant Pathology at MSU, started the hops program last year at the request of homebrewers and amateur gardeners.

"We got a lot of questions from people who had an acre of land and wanted to make money growing hops," said Tom Blake. "There wasn't a program to look at hop production in Montana."

Victoria Blake added, "Since hops grow wild in the Gallatin Valley as a remnant of a once thriving brewing industry here before prohibition, we knew they would withstand our climate, and could potentially provide a new revenue source for Montanans."

Victoria Blake spent the winter acquiring parent plants and propagating offspring to plant in the experimental yard. She received several hop varieties from the National Clonal Germplasm Repository (NCGR) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Corvallis Ore. She grew the rhizomes into plants in MSU's Plant Growth Center and took cuttings from each to plant in the hopyard.

"Jeff Jacobsen (dean of the College of Agriculture) gave us the blessing to build the hopyard and David Baumbauer (manager of the Plant Growth Center) allowed us to use half an acre of the ten acres he manages; they were both instrumental in making this happen," said Victoria Blake.

Harvests from vine crops are rare in the first year after planting, according to Victoria Blake. Due to a cold spring, the hops weren't planted until mid-June. The temperature dropped to freezing soon after planting, which killed most of the above-ground growth.

"We didn't expect to harvest this year," said Tom Blake. "But we did."

"They bounced back beautifully and the varieties we harvested on Saturday began to flower in early August," said Victoria Blake.

Each variety section in the hopyard (15 total) will hold 44 plants. To date, only the Fuggles and Cascade sections are full. The researchers will continue to propagate this winter with plans to fill the other sections next year. They will be requesting additional varieties from the NCGR that have been requested by local brewers for evaluation, including Magnum and Willamette.

"The hopyard was built as a community service to demonstrate what varieties would grow well here, and to provide a small free source of hops for local homebrewers and small breweries for a 'fresh hop' ale," Victoria Blake said.

Homebrewer Brandon Hardin picked citrusy Cascade hops from the vine and collected them in a plastic bag to use in a pale ale he plans to brew.

"I've been adding more hops to my garden, so it is interesting to see what is going on here," said Hardin. "Plus, hops have been getting pretty expensive, so it's nice to get some for free."

According to Tom Blake, hops reached $23 per pound last year. In part the price is a reflection of a warehouse fire in Washington.

"Half of the nation's hop supply was lost in that fire," said Blake.

Saturdays harvest included the varieties Cascade, Fuggles, Aromet and a Native American land race. If there isn't a hard freeze, four other varieties--Northern Brewer, Mt. Hood, Early Cluster and Swiss Tettnanger--will be harvested in a few weeks.

Spencer Anderson, a brewer at Lone Peak Brewery in Big Sky, filled the back of his truck with hop vines. The hops were added to a batch of beer as soon as he returned to Big Sky. Normally, hops arrive at a brewery pelletized and/or frozen. Lone Peak Brewery used the MSU hops to make their first fresh hop beer, called Lone Peak Fresh Hop Pale Ale.

"The hops are really aromatic and by throwing them in at the end of the brewing process, we'll get a really fresh, really hoppy beer," said Spencer. "This is as fresh and unprocessed as you can get."

The hop yard will give backyard hop growers an idea of what can and cannot grow in the Gallatin Valley, according to Tom Blake. The plants harvested at the community hop harvest averaged about three-quarters of a pound of hops per plant. The plant density in the hop yard was about 2,000 plants per acre. That works out to about 1,500 pounds of hops per acre.

"I think that hop production could be profitable in Montana," said Tom Blake. "We'll see how things survive the winter."

Victoria Blake at (406) 994- or vblake@montana.edu