As a mug club member at Tyranena Brewery in Lake Mills, Michelle Root routinely looks over the brewery's weekly newsletter to learn about what brews are being bottled along with the upcoming music schedule in the tasting room. But last winter when brewmaster Rob Larson wrote about concerns over a shortage in hops and the effect on beer costs, she took note and began looking into what it takes to grow hops and barley.
Root has been working the last two years to establish a CSA garden at her Waterloo area farm. "When I saw the article in the Tyranena newsletter, it got my attention, and the more I read about hops the more interested I became," she explains. "I have been gardening for quite some time, but with a limited amount of acreage I was looking for something unique and diverse, so I started thinking, Wisconsin growing conditions and beer, this could work."
Approaching Larson with her idea, the brewer helped her contact Lakefront Brewery owner Russ Klisch and Jon Reynolds, one of the organizers of the emerging Wisconsin Brewers Guild Cooperative. After getting advice from them about where to obtain hops, Root planted nearly 800 rhizomes (roots) in a half-acre plot last May. Despite the rhizomes liking of moist soil, last summer's wet conditions were not ideal and Root says she lost about a third of the plants.
Hops are in the family of plants that include hemp, growing as long vines with lots of foliage. The flowers, or cones, contain resins (lupulin) which impart the bitter flavor transferred to beer. Hops also have a scent that is commonly described as spicy, floral or piney. Their use gained importance in the Middle Ages, not just for taste but for the preservative qualities they impart into beer.
Wisconsin was once one of the leading hop producing states in the U.S. As Wisconsin breweries gained prominence in the mid-1800s so did the crop. Sauk County was the state's leading hop producer, growing nearly one-fourth of all its hops. But by the late 1860s, insect problems, in particular a type of lice, combined with overproduction and lead to a collapse of the market and eviscerated Wisconsin's hop production. Today, about 70% of U.S. hops are grown in the Yakima Valley of Washington state.
Root has planted four varieties of hops --Willamette, Cascade, Fuggel and Zeus -- all used commonly by Wisconsin brewers.
Growing them requires significant labor, though. "You must plant them by hand and then keep the weeds down as they become established," she says. The work doesn't just stop at planting, though. Over the next couple of years, Root will be building and installing trellises in her half-acre hop garden, after which she'll need to figure out how to dry the cones so they can be used for brewing.
Hop farming also requires a long-term commitment. Root may have some hops ready to harvest next fall for local breweries like Tyranena and Lakefront, but it's only in the third year that the vines are expected to reach maturity. "From 500 roots that made it, I only got a handful of cones this year," she says.
Root wants to grow her hops under organic conditions with hopes that an official certification may become an option in the future. "This takes a lot of work, more than most people think, and over time I'm concerned there could be challenges with disease and insects," she adds, "but I'm committed to seeing if I can make this work." Under ideal growth conditions, one acre of plantings can produce up to 2000 pounds of hop flowers. That's not a bad investment given the current price range for hops is $10-40 per pound.
But Root, a regular visitor at Tyranena and a fan of its Three Beaches Honey Blonde Ale, says she just hopes that one day soon there will be a beer that has the flavor of her hops. "I would consider it an accomplishment if my hops were made into a fun beer," she declares, "and that would be my favorite beer."