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Time to hop to it?

JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald

Beth LaShell, a visiting instructor at Fort Lewis College and coordinator of the FLC agricultural research center at Hesperus, looks over hops growing at the center.

By Dale Rodebaugh Herald staff writer

A symposium this weekend on hops could provide a sobering look at the industry for potential growers and home brewers who aspire to duplicate the products of craft breweries.

There’s more involved than meets the eye, experts say.

“The goal is to educate newcomers to the entire field,” said Kevin Lombard, a researcher at the Agriculture Science Center at New Mexico State University in Farmington. “They often don’t understand all that’s involved, from cultivation to marketing.”

It’s not easy or cheap to get started. And the Four Corners, with its dryness and high altitude, isn’t necessarily the best place to grow hops. But that’s not to say it can’t be done, experts say.

Lombard and Beth LaShell, a visiting instructor at Fort Lewis College and coordinator of the FLC agricultural research center at Hesperus, organized the symposium, scheduled today and Saturday in and around Farmington. Participants will hear from a number of speakers and get a peek at the hop-yard research Lombard has conducted for five years.

“I’d love to buy local hops, but there are a number of considerations,” said Erik Maxson, the fifth and newest brewpub entrepreneur in Durango. “Growing hops is a capital-intensive and labor-intensive endeavor.”

Investment in a trellis system and harvesting equipment is no small expense, Maxson said. First-year cones, as the flowers of the plant are called, don’t make the tastiest beer. And because it takes plants several years to mature and reach full production, there’s no immediate return on investment.

Elevation, climate

Given the high elevation and brutal climate of the Four Corners, the region will never rival the Northwest, where Washington, Oregon and Idaho grow almost all hops used commercially in the United States. In 2011, the three states cultivated 30,000 acres of hops. Colorado had barely 100 trellised acres.

The symposium aims at dispelling grandiose dreams, while at the same time explaining that hops can grow in the Four Corners. The trials that LaShell and Lombard are conducting aim to show what strains tolerate local conditions and what markets are available.

Commercial brewers use cones that have been pelletized (dried, crushed and formed into pellets). But craft breweries and home-brew enthusiasts can use fresh or dried hops.

Mel Matis, who planted 240 hop rhizomes (underground stem systems that put up shoots) in July 2011 on his Florida Mesa farm, knows the drill.

“It was too little return for what we put into it,” he said this week. “We got a good crop, but it took seven people picking eight hours to get a few pounds.”

Matis said he’d need 500 pounds to interest a craft brewer in his crop. Maybe he’ll find a home brewer who’ll tap into it, Matis said.

Sam Perry of Mancos planted 10 varieties of hops derived from rhizomes he found wild in three places. Two sources were homesteads – one belonging to early members of his own family – and the third was in the Mancos Valley.

“I had big dreams of being a commercial brewer,” Perry said. “Then the reality of picking them set in, and my interest dwindled.”

Perry gives hops to a friend who’s a home brewer, but still has some left.

Small breweries may buy

Among topics speakers at the symposium will address are equipment needs and market demands, hop cultivation and marketing in Colorado, the experience of hop growers in the Northeast and lessons that hop growers in New Mexico have learned.

Dave Thibodeau, a founder of Ska Brewing Co. in Durango and a panelist at the symposium, thinks small brewers and small-harvest hop growers could establish mutually beneficial relationships.

“Small breweries, ones who may produce one or two kegs at a time, often try different things,” Thibodeau said. “They can use fresh hops.”

Growers with a small harvest, unable to pelletize their fresh hops for longer shelf life, might be able to hook up with small breweries, Thibodeau said.

Small-scale operators don’t realize the scope of breweries such as Ska, which uses an average of 30,000 pounds of largely pellitized hops a year, Thibodeau said.

LaShell, who taught agriculture at the Hesperus site when it was part of the Colorado State University system, knows hops.

In 2008, she received two to five samples each of five varieties of hops – some 20 plants – from CSU. All the varieties did well, but she wasn’t into hops except from a scientific aspect.

“Since then, microbreweries got big and home brewing got big,” LaShell said. “Then, 18 months ago, I got a VISTA (Volunteers In Service to America) aide who does home brewing and took an interest in hop production.”

A U.S. Department of Agriculture specialty-crop grant through its Colorado counterpart in 2012, brought Fort Lewis College 24 hop plants from each of 11 varieties. They went into the ground at the Hesperus station in the middle of June.

They will be monitored on how well they do at high elevation, in a short growing season and through hard winters, LaShell said. The same species are being observed by Lombard in Farmington and by colleagues at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces where elevation, soil condition and climate are different.

daler@durangoherald.com

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