By TRISTAN SCOTT
Tom Britz has spent a lot of time “learning” on his experimental hops ranch near Whitefish.
That’s not to say he isn’t also growing prodigious amounts of hops, which in turn will produce beer. But for now, Britz’s primary aim as a hop rancher is science.
What began as a 1-acre, postage-stamp field of rhizomes – a research project, sponsored by the Montana Department of Agriculture and two local breweries – has entered its second season and is now producing verdant, hearty bines, not vines, that are festooned with hops, the cone-like flower used as a flavoring and stabilizing agent in beer, which imparts a bitter, tangy characteristic.
Britz recently procured the first commercial hop harvester in Montana, a German-built Wolf hop harvester, and later this month craft beer aficionados from two area breweries – Great Northern Brewing Company in Whitefish and Tamarack Brewing Company in Lakeside, both of whom have invested capital in the project – will help harvest his burgeoning crop for their seasonal, fresh-hopped craft ales.
He believes those beers will prove a point about artisan-crafted brewing, but affirmation of that proof will come from the brewers, as well as the beer drinkers.
With 40 varietals growing at his ranch on KM Ranch Road, which hugs the same 48th latitude as the premium hop fields of Munich and the Hallertau region of Germany, Britz is at the vanguard of a project to determine if hops can be grown on a commercial scale in Northwest Montana, a region that shares characteristics with the best hop-growing areas in the world.
It’s a capital-intensive crop, with a single acre costing between $12,000 and $15,000 to establish and requiring some 500 hours of labor annually to maintain.
The idea to grow hops on Britz’s ranch began with Pat McGlynn of Montana State University’s Flathead County Extension. McGlynn wanted to see if hops could grow on a large scale in the area and, to support the effort, the state Department of Agriculture put up $11,820, and Great Northern Brewing Company and Tamarack Brewing Company matched it.
Last summer, the Department of Agriculture brought its Growth Through Agriculture Council to Britz’s ranch to inspect the future hops crop, which at the time were barely inching their way up the compostable, coconut-husk vine-training cords hanging from a trellis.
On a recent visit to Britz’s ranch, the crops had exploded into 18-foot high beanstalks resembling a veritable canopy of green.
Last winter, Britz applied for and received another, larger $42,000 GTA grant for the second phase of his project to determine if commercial harvesting is feasible, and whether there is demand for the niche he’s trying to fill – the production of artisan, hand-crafted, Montana-grown beer of a premium quality.
In the past, Montana has mostly produced wheat and beef, but following Britz’s example, the state’s farmers and ranchers may start casting an eye at other agricultural wares as well.
“We are, from a latitude perspective, sitting at ground zero in terms of growing hops,” Britz said. “We know we can grow it, but then what are you going to do with it?”
The answer to that question came during a conversation with Great Northern Brewing Company general manager Marcus Duffey.
“I asked him if he thought there was demand for hops and he just started laughing. They weren’t able to get enough fresh hops to keep up with demand.”
Enter the Hopfenpfluckmaschine – the 10,000-pound commercial harvester Britz just received from a hops farm in southern Germany, north of Munich.
To prepare for the initial commercial harvest, Britz will spend the coming weeks reassembling the mammoth machinery while also building specialized dryers for the hops, the majority of which will be used in fresh hop ales at the two breweries.
And that’s the niche Britz is working to create.
In the United States, 78 percent of hops are grown in the Yakima Valley of Washington, followed by producers in Oregon and Idaho.
Britz knows that nobody can compete with the Pacific Northwest in terms of growing hops as a major commodity, but he believes he can add value to his crop of hops in another way – by providing them fresh.
The average hop farm in Washington is 660 acres, and hops must be dried, frozen, hammer-milled, pelletized and packaged immediately, or else they start to compost.
But that process, particularly drying the hops at a high heat, compromises the oils that add the most flavorful bouquet to beers.
He likens mass-produced hops to Kraft American cheese, and his hops to a French brie.
“The theory of premium, artisan-crafted beer will remain theory, until I can prove it,” he said. “But the demand exists. When I started two years ago there were 33 licensed brewers in Montana. Today, there are 42, and eight more in the process of becoming licensed.”
Still, Britz’s brand of learning is a tremendous amount of work, and he estimates that it takes 550 hours of labor annually to produce a single acre of hops. An acre will produce bines and hops that collectively weigh 20,000 pounds, and harvesting requires intense manual labor.
But as his hops continue to grow and he continues to learn from the process, smoothing out the rough edges that characterized the early stages of the project, so too grows his excitement.
“It’s been like building an airplane, flying at 350 miles per hour and being shot at,” Britz said of the project. “I’ve skinned my knees so many times. I’ve made a lot of mistakes. But we’re learning so much about hops in Montana. After all, we are building this from scratch.”