Growing for Brewing: A Hop Farmer’s Adventure

Growing for Brewing: A Hop Farmer’s Adventure

Part 1: Time For Terroir

Just as brewers continue to innovate and adapt in the craft brewing industry craft hop farmers like us need to as well. In this ongoing series of posts we’ll share stories of innovation that Mighty Axe Hops is leading.

Spring is in the air, as one might say. At the farm, the smell of soil waking from winter’s deep freeze is a welcome sign of sunny days ahead. But when we say there’s “something in the air,” we’re talking about what makes Minnesota hops unique from the rest of the world’s hop producers: terroir.

As Mighty Axe Hops has developed over the years, two major questions have been front and center.

Q1: Does the location of hop growing impact it’s flavor?

A: That’s a generally accepted yes.

Q2: How does the location of where a hop was grown impact it’s flavor?

A: Science hasn’t weighed in…yet.

Mighty Axe Hops, together with the University of Minnesota’s Sensory Lab and St.Croix Sensory, is leading a study to begin to shed light on the role of terroir in hop flavor and aromas. Financial support for this study was provided by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s Sustainable Agriculture Demonstration Grant through the Agricultural Growth, Research and Innovation (AGRI) Program.

Wait, what’s terroir?

Terroir is a French term that means where something is grown imparts certain characteristics unique to that location. If you’re a wine or cheese lover you’re already quite familiar with the concept; French red wines are different than Californian or Spanish or Chilean reds.

Our study aims to clearly define aroma and flavor characteristics of Washington grown hops compared to Minnesota grown hops and be able to compare and contrast the two.

Golden-yellow Lupulin in a mature hop cone.

The Study

To date, our study has completed the first leg of a three year journey. In March 2019 we welcomed 37 brewers and their noses to St.Croix Sensory’s labs in St.Croix, Minnesota where they sniffed, whiffed, smelled and tasted their way through sample after sample of hops.

In this initial three year exposition our study is focusing on just two hop varietals from just two places: Cascade and Chinook hops from Washington State and Minnesota. Brewers evaluated these hops using two different sample methods; rub replication and a randalled brewed sample. Initial findings are pointing to some exciting opportunities for brewers and consumers of craft beer.

Why does this matter to me again?

For example, Minnesota Cascade has shown consistently more orange characteristics than traditional grapefruit or pine. This has led to beers like OMNI Brewing’s Birdie Putt Hazy Pale Ale, an all MN cascade hazy pale ale, being full of ripe, sweet orange aromas and flavors. The impact of these new understandings could be vast: imagine a world where your favorite hoppy beers have infinitely more flavors available to them, IPAs being distinguished as a Minnesota IPA vs Oregon IPA vs NE (actually!) IPA.  

One of the most challenging aspects of a study like this is controlling for all the variables besides location that feed into hop aroma and flavors. Variables like pick timing, drying practices, storage practices, growing practices, seasonal variation, have a large impact on hop characteristics. Keeping those influencers static is key to trying to tease out the mysteries of terroir. Thanks to support from John Haas Group, we were able to source West Coast hops that matched nicely to the pick timing, drying practices, and storage practices that we employ.

Thanks for joining us for this first installment of the Growing for Brewing: A Hop Farmer’s Adventure series. We’ll be back again with part two of this semi-regular series when the time is right. ‘Til then, drink craft and be merry.

Farmer Eric