The Bennetts are the owners and farmers of the San Juan Hop Farm in Montrose. They planted their first hop plants four years ago and just finished their second, true harvest over Labor Day. The two do it all -- planting, picking, drying, conditioning, baling, even stenciling the company name on the burlap sack.
In addition, the two have had to make the machines and tools to execute each step of the process. According to Pam, most hops come from big farms in the Northwest that have been around for generations, so tools and machines to do it on a small scale simply don’t exist.
“Nothing is easy,” Pam said. “You just don’t go down to John Deere and buy a hop implement of any sort. There’s nothing. Everything you need, you have to fabricate, or figure out how to take something from another piece of machinery and weld it onto something else. We have not bought one thing off the shelf for hop farming. Nothing.”
A case in point is the San Juan Hop Farm’s baler. After harvesting their hops, the Bennetts must put them in bales and into burlap sacks to sell to their brewers. But they can’t use a hay or straw baler, because hops are much smaller and would fall out of the twine. They can’t use an industry baler, because it’s extremely expensive and produces 200-pound bales. The Bennetts sell their hops in 60-to-80 pound bales.
The solution? Call Dad.
“After looking at some [balers] up in the Northwest, I came up with a kind of design,” Scott says. “I gave my dad a sketch on a sheet of paper and dropped off a bunch of steel and said, ‘Hey, can you build it?’ About three weeks of welding and this what we got,” he said, pointing to the industrial baler in the middle of the garage-turned-hop-conditioning plant.
Pam points out drying racks, and explains that after the hops are picked, they must go in the dryer – a unit that looks like an industrial oven against the far side of the garage. Racks holding large sheets line the drying unit vertically. Pam explains that the oven circulates the hot air from outside throughout the drying unit to dry the hops.
And who built the drying unit?
“Scotty!” Pam says.
After drying, the hops go through the conditioning process in which they are scattered on the floor and stirred. This allows the moisture left in the stem to go back into the leaves. At this stage, the hops are ready to be baled and sold as dry hops.
“Something else we learned are that hops are combustible if you take them out of the dryer and don’t condition them” Pam said. “So it’s like, dang, where’s that hop manual? We need to go check on those girls.” She calls her hops, “her girls,” because the rhizomes used to start hop plants are always female.
This year, the girls produced 3,000 pounds of dry hops ready to sell to market.
“You would not believe how many hops it takes to make a pound of hops,” Pam says. “It takes a lot!”
Because a dry hop retains only 10 percent of its original weight, it took 30,000 pounds of fresh hops to produce the final 3,000 pounds of dry. The farm has the infrastructure to grow hops on 34 acres, but as a start-up, the Bennetts have plants on 15 acres. With the help of 60 pickers, they harvested half.
“It didn’t make sense to harvest more, because we couldn’t get it to the end user,” Pam says.
In the case of this year’s harvest, the end users are Colorado microbrewers such as Ska Brewing Company, Colorado Native Beer, Moab Brewery, Boulder Beer, and Smuggler’s Brewery.
“Brewers are really psyched to get our hops,” Pam says. “The movement is to grow locally and buy locally.”
Establishing relationships with the brewers is another part of their excellent adventure.
“Talk about an interesting group of people,” Pam says. “We go to their breweries, they come to the farm. That part is really fun.”
In the future, the Bennetts hope they will be able to pelletize their hops, which will help them expand their market and sell to more brewers.
“Once we get a pellitizer that’s going to open up our ability to sell hops to 150 more brewers, ” Pam says, explaining that more brewers use pellets than dry hops. “The new brewery in Lawson Hill and Colorado Boy Brewery in Ridgway (could become clients).”
But, like everything else in the business, getting a pelletizer isn’t easy. Pam explains that at first they thought they could use a rabbit pelletizer or alpha pelletizer, but then she learned that because of the oil, or lupiline, in the hops, they’d need a special pelletizer.
“You have to have a special pelletizer that is nitrogen cooled,” she chuckles, “or you’ll mess up the composition of the hops.”
Despite the obstacles of small-batch hop farming, Pam’s good humor combined with Scott’s handyman skills got them through this year’s harvest. What will they need to get through the next one?
According to Pam, the pelletizer and a mechanized picker, both of which they’ll have to fabricate themselves.
Their excellent adventure continues.