Crazy Horse Hops Imports a Monster

Crazy Horse Hops Imports a Monster

by Mark E. Lasbury for Indiana On Tap

Crazy Horse Hops (CHH) in Knightstown is Indiana’s largest hop farm. They’ve been growing Chinook and Cascade hops for a couple of years and have now expanded into several other hops as for this and next year’s harvest. The learning curve has been steep, and one of the things Josh, Todd, and Ryan have learned is that Indiana hops are really different from Michigan or Pacific Northwest grown hops; even for plants that were propagated in Michigan and then planted here.

The technical words for the changes responsible for creating an Indiana-specific hop are the related issues of epigenetics and terroir, but let’s look at what those things are in minor detail. And I mean very minor detail; some people study these things for their entire professional lives.

Terroir is the minor (or major) differences in soil, topography, weather, ecosystem and climate (weather over many years) that exist from place to place. Terroir can lead to changes in how a plant grows and what it’s chemical makeup might be, especially over several harvest periods with the same plants. Grapevines for wine are a great example of terroir playing a role in flavor and character. Vines grown on one side of a hill can produce grapes with different flavors as compared to vines from the other side of the same hill.

Mikkeller knows how terroir can affect flavor. image credit: BeerPulse

With hops, the propagating plants for Indiana usually come from Michigan, Minnesota, or the Pacific Northwest, so just about everything is just a little different in each locale, from amount of sunshine, timing of seasons, and soil constituents, to the diseases, bugs, and other plants present. The end results are hops that have tweaked flavor and aroma characteristics, maybe from changing the amounts of certain chemicals made, or from trying to protect itself from too much sunshine. Terroir is a great word that basically means that a hop’s aromas, flavors, and even production level will reflect where it is grown.

Epigenetics. Epigenetics is one of the mechanisms by which the terroir has its effects on a plant. Epi- means above or beyond, and genetics is the passing of genes through generations and the effects of those genes on the physiology (growth and chemistry) of an organism. Together, they refer to a system within biology where changes in genetic expression (which genes are turned on or off) can be affected by something other than the genes themselves – the environment can influence which genes are being read, translated, and used to make proteins at any one time. Basically, how and where an organism lives can significantly affect how it controls its genes.

There are several control systems that help to turn genes on or off, things like histone acetylation or gene methylation, but that’s beyond what we need to know for this discussion. Suffice it to say that all the different characteristics of an environment will have an influence on which genes are being expressed at any one time, and the way seasons, weather, pressures, and other things change means that control of genes will flux over time. In different locales, the ecosystems will be different enough to create different gene expression profiles in plants, even plants that are genetically identical (as hop propagations from the same parent plants are). All those differences between the two places – that’s the terroir.

Given enough time (seasons of growth), the terroir will cause a divergence in the rates and types of mutations in plants as well, because different genes will be stressed in different locales. The two plants that are genetically identical will be less and less alike. And this is what CHH has found out about Chinook and Cascade hops grown in Indiana – they develop different flavor profiles as compared to the same hops grown other places. Maybe the chemicals are the same, but the relative ratios are different. Just what difference in the environment is responsible for the change is hard to isolate, but taken together, it means that Indiana is producing a very different tasting and smelling hop – and that’s good for innovation in beer.

Crazy Horse is betting much bigger, fields and buildings. image credit: Walter

The Indiana Chinook and Cascade being grown in Knightstown now have a chance to shine in Indiana made beer. CHH is talking to several breweries about doing side-by-side single hop beers that will compare and contrast Indiana grown hops against those grown in other places. Since the harvest season is coming up in the next few weeks or has actually begun in some places, look for these beers fairly soon. That is of course, if CHH can get all those hops out of the field and into your glass.

Harvesting Hops. We talked last week about how CHH has expanded their acreage, and how that meant that they needed a better hop harvestor. Previous years have been very labor intensive during the harvest, but that’s getting a bit easier and much faster this year with the addition of a new harvestor. The 28 acres of strung hops this year will take about three weeks to harvest, but a portion of that time will be taken up with maneuvering around all the construction going on right now. You heard correct, in addition to the added acreage, CHH is also greatly expanding their building – just as the harvest is coming.

The addition to the building will take it to over 20,000 sq. ft, with a 40×60 cold storage room for pelletized hops, offices, three different cooling and rehumidifying rooms (more on those below), and areas for baling and pelletizing the hops. On the day I visited, the outside walls were being erected, and Josh was hoping to get the metal roof on in the next few days. It’s definitely a work in progress, but the progress is quick, and it won’t interfere with the harvest except for driving around things.

Next year, the 40 added acres will mean about a 4-5 week harvest, and that, along with the construction of the building, made it imperative to get the new hop picker in this year. And what a harvester it is – the Wolf Hopfenflückmaschine WHE513, straight from Germany. The WHE513 is 20 ft. wide by 60 feet long (with the feed arm) by almost 20 feet high, and that’s just the main part of the machine. The entire process takes place in two different buildings connected by several different sets of conveyors, but all controlled by the electronics panel on the WHE513. The 513 number comes from the fact that it can process 513 strings with attached bines each hour.

It’s hard to get a picture of the entire 513, but here is a similar machine, without all the conveyors attached. image credit: Cascade Hop Farm

Overall, the 513 looks like a monster coal excavator got together with a conveyor belt factory and had a baby. There are lots of moving parts; the scale reminds me of Charlie Chaplin’s work in Modern Times or the machine that runs the city in Metropolis, without the slave labor and risk of injury, of course. It’s a wonder to see it at work, and is quieter than I would have imagined it to be. They haven’t named it yet, but I’m thinking The Hop Monster has to be in the running….or maybe Nom, Nom, Nom.

The front end has a chain feeder for the strings with the bines attached to it (cut by machine in the field two feet from bottom and then at the top). The bines feed into the machine where they are stripped of leaves and hop cones, and a dribble belt separates everything by weight (the cones are heavier than the bines and leaves). About 65% of the cones separate out in the first couple of feet, but efficiency is increased by additional dribble separators toward the middle of the machine.

All the hop cones drop on to a conveyor on one side of the 513 and are moved up a couple of conveyors in and into a huge hopper at the back main harvester room, while the leaves and bines are shot out the side of the building as silage. As the hopper is filled by a moving conveyor, they are moved to the oast (the technical beer name for the hop drying oven) on yet another climbing conveyor. Raised now to almost thirty feet, the hops cones go through a hole in the wall and down onto the perforated bed of the dryer. A huge 5,000,000 BTU/hr heater blows hot air up through a series of baffles, entering the drying room about 2-3 feet from the floor of the oast. But the hops are about 25-30 feet off the ground, so the space between them allows the heat to even out. It’s like one of those hot air fryers they sell on TV, just two and a half stories tall.

Each hop variety is dried to a specific moisture content, which is sensed electronically in the oast bed and relayed to the main harvester (software called Lupus3 from Wolf). The 18 inch bed of hops is thin and allows for a very even drying process, ala the German method. In Washington and Oregon, the drying beds can be as thick as three feet, which means variable drying from top to bottom. The end result is that processed hops from CHH are going to be more consistent, and therefore make more consistent beer from batch to batch. Future years will bring bigger harvests for CHH, but they will stick to the 18 inch bed and just run the dryer more often. It’s important for the beer and not something they want to alter.

This is the huge hopper for the hop cones. They can be taken to the oast from here, or put into the tubs on the bottom right for wet hop delivery. image credit: Walter

When the sensors tell the 513 that the hops are dried, the bed of the oast becomes its own conveyor and dumps the hops onto a perforated bed in the conditioning box next door. Right now there is just one of these rooms, but there will be a total of three boxes when the expansion is done. The cooling process is a bit longer, so having three conditioning rooms means that the drying process can be made more efficient. Cool air, controlled by a ConAqua system, not the Wolf 513, blows up from the floor through the hop bed, with the hops now just a couple of feet off the ground.

If the hops get a bit too dry, there is a big series of vertical baffles which run cold water over the blowing air and can precisely raise the moisture content for each specific hop variety. There are sensors all over this massive machine; temperature, moisture, speed, number, movement, even sensors that will shut the entire machine down if someone gets too close.

Once at the proper moisture level and cooled, the hops are moved up again by conveyor until they fall into the baler. Each hop has a different cone size and density, so there is another sensor that detects and tamps the bale the proper number of times – tight but not too tight. Now the dried hops are good for about year or so if stored cold, or they can be pelletized. The pelletizer is a different machine so I will write about that some other time, but that’s the process for harvesting hops now at CHH as far as the WHE513 is concerned. It’s a monster, but a friendly monster if you like craft beer. You’d have to travel 200 miles to see a hop picker as big as this one; there might be two in MI, and one in MN, but that’s about it outside of the Pacific Northwest.

What’s coming next for CHH? Josh, Ryan, and Todd must not sleep much, because they have other things in the works for CHH besides just growing and harvesting hops. They have an experimental hop line crossed between a Northern Brewer strain and a MN strain that they are growing off site and following closely. It’s likely that one day we’ll see a Crazy Horse hop – great, another hop with a name that starts with “C” (they are now growing Copper, Crystal, Cascade, Chinook, and Comet).

Tours and events will help CHH become known to more brewers and people. image credit: Crazy Horse Hops

CHH has a specific business plan – they want to be big enough that breweries can come to them yearly for hops instead of signing long term hop contracts with the big boys from the Pacific Northwest or Europe. And as we discussed last week, CHH can do that for hops they grow and for hops they can bring in already baled. But to build a sufficient customer base to sell all their hops, people have to know about them. To help with that, CHH has two ideas coming down the pike.

The Hop Trail Passport will be rolled out in the next couple of months. Breweries that use a certain amount of CHH hops or always have a beer made with CHH hops on tap can become partners on the Hop Trail. Customers get a passport book describing the participating breweries, and they can get a stamp at each stop they make. Gather enough stamps and you earn a prize. The details are being worked out as we speak, but look for the Hop Trail when you visit your favorite breweries. It’s a nice way to highlight that a brewery is using locally produced hops.

The second idea is to build a taproom and event room at Crazy Horse Farm, and then to hold events there, like tour days for industry professionals or even weddings and other gatherings. The building is already there, a pole barn that has been used as an indoor sports facility (batting cage and hoops court), so it can quickly be converted to a taproom serving beers made with CHH hops and for events. A few public events with tours of the farm will go along way to getting their name out and building the customer base for all these hops that they’re getting ready to harvest. I think I hear them firing up The Hop Monster now.

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