Feeling Fresh, Indiana’s Hop Growers Are Ready To Produce

A brewer/owner once told me, “If you meet a brewer who doesn’t want to talk about beer…run!” With their passion worn on their grubby sleeves, the same can be said about hop farmers who care deeply about what they do. The difference being, if brewers are the front and center rock stars, farmers are the expert studio musicians toiling in anonymity, though no less committed. Or cool.

As a city boy, my first introduction to agriculture was not actually doing the work myself, but seeing it through someone else’s labor. Attending college in Kentucky, I would see sweaty and and grimy guys shuffle back to their rooms with a lingering dust trail after a long, weekend day of “pulling” tobacco in late summer. No shame here, this was the harvest season’s walk of exhaustion. Baseball practice suddenly became easier.

I guess it’s that ass-kicking work ethic that I admire in hop (and malt) farmers, helping brewers deliver delicious beer to our grateful lips. And it’s why I crashed the recent quarterly meeting of the Indiana Hop Growers Association.

Indiana Hop Growers Association. Photo by Rick Burkhardt

IHGA, with over 20 farm members, has only been organized for a couple of years so it is still in its infancy. However, they now have two huge allies in the Purdue University Hops and Brewing Analysis Laboratory, and the Brewers of Indiana Guild.

Jean Jensen, research scientist and lab manager at Purdue, addressed the crowd, reminding them that Purdue is there to provide comprehensive analytical testing on submitted hop samples. Requests are increasing and she further enforced that Purdue’s mission is not to be the farm police, but to help support and educate Indiana’s farmers and brewers.

Graph provided by Purdue University. Photo by Rick Burkhardt

Like a high hanging trellis, much of the conversation was over my head but it was clear that the farmers are very happy to work with Purdue. Jean appreciated hearing from Steve Howe, owner of Howe Farms, that her original critics (including himself) are now her most ardent supporters.

Jean also proved there is humor in a technical world. In reporting that they begin testing within 24 hours of receiving samples, and that the turnaround in delivering a report is about 3-5 business days, Jean brought the house down when she was asked if a twenty dollar bill included in the mail package would ensure faster results. “Donations are always accepted,” she quipped.

Rob Caputo, Executive Director for the Brewers of Indiana Guild, was excited to announce that the Guild is working with IHGA towards an “affiliate marketplace” as a form of membership. Details are not yet spelled out but it reflects the Guild’s recognition that farmers are instrumental in the growth of Indiana beer, as well as their mission. No one apparently grows Indiana water, but if they did they would partner with them too.

Conversations continued onto “best practices” where members implored their fellow farmers that these should be exceeded and not just met. There is a lot riding on the Indiana hop industry and they understand that if someone became ill as a result of a bad product, it could ruin the industry for the whole state.

Now, since individuals – or even large-scale homebrewers – typically don’t purchase directly from hop or malt farmers we might ask, “What can we do to help?” Well, let me interrupt for a minute to give you this: There is legislation proposed by our neighboring Buckeye state, where a brewery can offer an “Ohio Proud” designation, declaring that the principal ingredients in a particular beer (or cider) are homegrown.  

Back to the question, “How do we help?” Quite simply, we help by frequenting those breweries who use ingredients from Indiana’s growers. Not to suggest that breweries should only purchase in-state, but when we learn that they use homegrown products, lets give them every ounce of attention that we can.

That brings up the matter of excellence since breweries are not the only folks in this chain committed to its pursuit. Quality is a hop farms first commitment and reputations are at stake, says Paul Williams, co-owner (with wife Sara) of Liberty Hop Farms. “I have seen each and every hop cone that comes through” and if a vine is not up to his standards, he says it will not be used. Quality will not be sacrificed for quantity.

Howe High IPA. Photo by Rick Burkhardt

And in the “That’s Really Cool” category, Howe Farms and Indy High Bines recently collaborated on what is considered a first for Indiana; two hop farms partnering with a brewery to create a single beer. Indy High Bines co-owner K.C. Lewis said that one farm offered bittering hops to MashCraft Brewing while the other farm presented more aroma hops, resulting in a small batch of “Howe High IPA.” He’s holding on to the particulars for now but word has it that the beer will be tweaked for a bigger batch later.

If passion, collaboration and cheering for each other’s successes sounds familiar, then you understand what Indiana’s farmers contribute to an already collegial brewing industry.

As days get longer and hotter, working hours will increase, and the now-hibernating hop fields will soon be delivering plump and juicy cones that bring music to our beers. For Indiana’s farmers, this is an exciting time, allowing them to do what they love. However unnoticed.