Mark Pattison picks a hop cone off the vine and rapidly rolls it back and forth between his hands. A sticky, yellow powder coats his palms, releasing an aroma that’s woodsy yet floral.
"See that? That’s what you want," Pattison says, holding out his hands to show how they’ve turned yellow from the lupulin — the oil inside hops that give beer its bitter flavor and aroma. "These (hops) are perfect."
Pattison is one of the founders and owners of Buck Creek Hops, Iowa’s largest hops farm with 50 acres near Solon in eastern Iowa. Since its first hops were planted in 2014, Buck Creek Hops gets several calls each week from people interested in growing hops here in Iowa, Pattison says.
Hops acreage in Iowa has grown from just 5 to 10 acres in 2014 to more than 60 acres today, says Diana Cochran, a horticulturalist for Iowa State University Extension and Outreach.
That number is expected to increase as more Iowa farmers tap into the booming craft beer industry. Cochran says she’s also getting more calls from farmers curious about growing hops, especially now with the low commodity prices.
"(Farmers are) looking at what else is out there," Cochran says. "Obviously, they aren’t going to put their whole farm into (hops), but if something piques their interest, which hops has for a lot of them, then it’s something they can do to help their farm diversify."
Farm Bureau members Mark Pattison, his brother Lee Pattison, his brother-in-law Dan Paca and his friend Chad Henry decided to plant the hopyard for their Titzenheimer and Patti’s Ale craft beers, available at taprooms and retailers in eastern and central Iowa.
"We thought let’s grow our own hops so we can advertise this (beer) is made from our own. But then we started researching hops and realized we need to be in hops (farming), not beer," Pattison says.
"And the reason being is if you go into Hy-Vee and you look at the selection of craft beers, it’s like buying a fishing lure. How do you know which to buy? That ship has sailed. There is no one guy that’s going to dominate the market," he adds.
The bitterness and aroma of craft beer comes from the hops. And the India Pale Ales (IPAs), which are all the rage in the craft brew world right now, use about five times as much hops as commercial beer varieties.
Nearly 95 percent of U.S. hops production comes from the Pacific Northwest. However, hop acreage is now on the rise in the East Coast and Midwest to supply the new craft breweries, says ISU’s Cochran.
Craft breweries are looking for hops with a unique flavor and aroma that can help them stand out from the competition, Cochran explains.
Finding the right hops
Cochran has planted a hops test plot at ISU to help Iowa growers identify which hops varieties grow well in the state and provide the flavors that brewers want.
"We are trying to find those local, regional flavor profiles ... and to prove to the brewers that these (Iowa hops) are good cultivars they should try, that these are good flavor profiles they can work with," Cochran says.
Hops are a perennial that can withstand freezing winters and grow exceptionally well in Iowa’s rich soils, Pattison says. Yet the biggest difference between growing hops here and in the Pacific Northwest is the high humidity in Iowa.
Humidity provides the perfect environment for downy mildew, which can stop the hops plant from producing cones, Pattison says. Growers must spray the hops with fungicide regularly throughout the summer.
"You have to stay on top of the downy mildew because it will trash it overnight," Pattison says.
Hops are also a labor-intensive crop. Farmers must prune the vines — or bines, as they are called by growers — in the spring and wind the new shoots around the trellis to grow up toward the sun.
To harvest hops in the fall, farmers must cut down the bines and haul them to a stationary combine, which separates the hop cones from the bines.
However, brewers don’t want hops straight from the field, Pattison says. Instead, the hops must be pelletized, packaged and frozen for the brewers. Buck Creek Hops has an on-site harvester and pelletizer to process its hops, plus hops from other growers in Iowa and the Midwest.
The farm formed the Buck Creek Hops Alliance, which includes six contract growers ranging from 2 to 13 acres in size.
Pattison says Iowa farmers have a better chance of earning a profit if they join together to process and market their hops.
It costs about $10,000 to $12,000 an acre to plant the hops, install drip irrigation and build the trellises, Pattison says.
After three years in production, the hop plants can produce about 2,000 pounds an acre. The market prices for hops right now is about $10 to $15 per pound for certain varieties, Pattison says.
"But to get $20,000 to $25,000 an acre, you’ve got to have the processing and all that goes into it," he says.
Cochran says there is potential for Iowa to grow its hops industry just like its wine industry, with wineries now in almost all 99 counties in Iowa. However, farmers will need to share information and resources to attract the attention of brewers and grow hop varieties unique to the state.
"We need to start pushing outside of what the norm is, and I do think that is possible in Iowa. But I don’t think it’s going to happen tomorrow. Just like the wine industry, it’s been a long-time coming," Cochran says.
Pattison encourages farmers interested in growing hops to contact Buck Creek Hops at 319-331-3198 or visit https://buckcreekhops.com.