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Iowa’s newest crop: Hops for craft beer

Buck Creek Hops sign

The craft beer craze has hit Iowa in a big way, with new breweries popping up in small towns and urban hot spots throughout the state. And Iowa farmers are tapping into this emerging market, growing the high-quality hops that give craft beers their unique flavor. Hops acreage in Iowa has grown from just 5 to 10 acres in 2014 to about 60 acres today, says Diana Cochran, a horticulturalist for Iowa State University Extension and Outreach who now specializes in hops production.

Farm Bureau members Mark Pattison, his brother Lee Pattison, his brother-in-law Dan Paca and his friend Chad Henry decided to plant a 50-acre hopyard near Solon 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 Indian Pale Ales (IPAs), which are all the rage in the craft brew world right now, use about five times as much hops as the 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 all 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. 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.

The humidity provides the perfect environment for downy mildew, which can stop the hops plant from producing cones, Pattison says. “To grow hops, it’s not easy. You have to stay on top of the downy mildew because it will trash it overnight. You have to be proactive,” he says.

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.

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 join together to share information and resources to attract the attention of brewers and grow hop varieties that are 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.

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