hops field

FOLEY, Minn. — Josh Havill and Charlie Rohwer, hops researchers at the University of Minnesota, estimate there are about 120 acres of hops being grown in Minnesota. Mighty Axe raises eighty acres of that total in their rural Foley hops yard. Ben Boo of Mighty Axe says they are growing about 1,000 plants per acre. Boo says an acre of hops yields between 1,600 to 3,000 pounds of dried hops annually — depending on the hops variety and the season.

Mighty Axe may be the big fish in Minnesota’s tiny hops industry but, like everyone else in Minnesota, they are relative newcomers to the enterprise.

“Our very first trial of 25 plants went in the summer of 2013,” Boo said. “The meager six ounces that we picked off that trial went into a beer brewed by Niko Tonks when he was still working at Sociable Cider Works.”

Boo says that the first hops trial at Mighty Axe came just a year or two after the first commercial planting of hops in Minnesota.

“The Minnesota Hops Growers Association was founded in 2013 and I think the first small farms got started a couple years before then,” he recalled. “The industry is quite young and we all have a lot to learn about growing hops in our state with its unique weather and soil. We also have a lot to learn about which varieties thrive here. As we all develop our ability to grow, I think you'll see growers dialing in their portfolio of varieties to better match what brewers want and what they can grow best. Hopefully, that portfolio can someday include new varieties of hops bred for our climate. Right now all the varieties come from breeding programs in Oregon and Washington.”

Since its first modest trial, Mighty Axe has expanded its planting along with the varieties of hops the farm raises. Boo says he and his farming partner, Eric Sannerud, have been following their own advice by learning what best suits their farm and what local brewers are interested in.

“The different varieties that we raise all offer a range of agronomic and brewing characteristics — along with different ripening times that let us stretch out our picking window and get more acreage through our harvest and drying facility,” Boo explained. “Centennial, for example, is lower yielding, less vigorous and early ripening. It offers a really nice citrusy-floral aroma that brightens up pale ales and IPAs. Zeus, on the other hand, is extremely vigorous, high yielding, late ripening, and has a pungent, spicy, dank aroma that brewers like to use for a savory punch that rounds out more intensely-flavored IPAs.”

Although Boo and Sannerud expanded their hops yard fairly rapidly, their first hops trial was conservative. They encourage new hops growers to take a somewhat go-slow approach as well.

“We recommend a quarter-acre installation for new growers to start with,” Boo said. “Hops growers would do well to avoid heavy clay soils for their hops yards, though most other types of soils can be made to work through amendments for fertility and hilling for drainage.” 

Although hops plants are planted, a hops yard is said to be installed. Boo, based on the experience at Mighty Axe, estimates that a quarter-acre installation will cost about $5,700 from start to picking and processing the first harvest. Once installed, a hops yard will last from 10 to 25 years before replanting is required. 

In addition to planting the hops plants, an installation includes 20-foot poles, cable, a drip irrigation system, and strings to support individual plants.

Boo says hops plants are thirsty and that irrigation is necessary. 

“Drip irrigation is a must,” he stressed. “Sprinkler irrigation can lead to higher disease pressure and is an inefficient means of increasing plants’ available water in the soil.”

Mighty Axe has developed an installation guide that is available at their website mightyaxehops.com. The University of Michigan has hops growing resources at canr.msu.edu and the University of Vermont has hops resources at www.uvm.edu/extension/cropsoil/hops. Boo recommends both sources of information for the beginning hops grower.

Boo says that Mighty Axe is focused on delivering a local and quality hops product to craft brewers.

“We are serious about being a farm that grows exceptionally high-quality hops,” he said. “Brewers are used to getting their hands on some really nice stuff from Germany and the Pacific northwest, so for us to be locally grown is only half of the challenge. We also have to bring them hops that exceed their expectations and offer something different — and better — than what they can get anywhere else. As we hone our craft and learn how the hops behave in our unique soil and climate, we get closer and closer to delivering on that promise.”

Boo says that Mighty Axe and the other members of the Minnesota Hops Growers Association are ready and willing to work with new hops growers to deliver on that promise as well.