Crazy Horse Hops in Knightstown, From Yearling to Stallion

Crazy Horse Hops in Knightstown, From Yearling to Stallion

by Mark E. Lasbury for Indiana On Tap

It never ceases to amaze me how little I know about craft beer. I don’t spend most of my waking hours thinking about beer, but it does occupy a good fraction of my time. I talk to brewers, owners, and patrons in order to try and learn the ins and outs, and to then pass some of the interesting and helpful things along. But despite this thought and effort, I am always learning about aspects of beer that were previously a black box to me.

I know a few things about beer styles, about how to market a brewery and how to be a part of the brewing community, but you can fit what I have learned about the ingredients of beer into a fairly small bucket. The details of malts, of growing and harvesting hops, and building water profiles are all things I need to investigate. Not because I want to make beer or know everything (well, I’d kind of like to know everything), but because I think it’s important for people to understand how much toil, planning, and money go into making a really good pint of beer.

In my effort to learn more about craft beer and the people that make it possible, I recently spent an afternoon at Crazy Horse Hop Farm (CHH) in Knightstown. I knew a few things about CHH from Facebook and having met the three guys involved once or twice, but I was unprepared for a couple of items: 1) how much the farm is expanding right now, and 2) what an intricate operation growing, harvesting, packaging, and selling hops actually is.

image credit: Crazy Horse Hops

Crazy Horse Hop Farm. Founded in 2015 by Ryan Hammer (CEO), Dr. Todd Kaminski (CFO), and Josh Martin (COO), CHH began in earnest with ten acres of Chinook and Cascade hop plants, after a couple of years with just a few plants grown by Ryan to see what was possible). Unlike other crop farms, hops don’t produce that first year. The plant needs time to send down strong roots without asking it to grow tall and produce hop cones. In that first year, the goal is unfettered growth of the plants as the farmers put in the twenty-foot tall poles and string the wires across the tops of those poles. These will be the supports for the strings that the bines grow on in the second year and after.

Hop farming is labor intensive. Each plant gets two strings to climb on, and those strings have to be hand-tied to the wires at the top and hand-affixed to the ground below. After the plants have been pruned back in the spring by burning (early growth often has hollow stems, making it weaker and more prone to disease), the strings are hung one at a time and then the growing bines are “trained” to the strings so they will grow up instead of along the ground.

I used the word bine because a vine is a different kind of plant. The stems of vines have tendrils and suckers that are the parts that wrap around an object to hold it up, while with bines it’s the stem itself that wraps around the object. In the case of hops, that object is a coconut twine string that is strong enough in the beginning, but as the bine grows to the top, actually s easier to break than the hop bine itself. Perhaps three or four bines are trained to each string; enough to maximize efficiency of each string, but not so many as to clog the picker come harvest time. The training is done by hand, making it almost as labor intensive as stringing days. The bines are wrapped clockwise around the string several times and then tied in place. Training them clockwise allows the bines to move with the sun all day long for maximum growth.

So, is that it? You plant them, burn them back, train them and then wait to harvest? Nope, not by a long shot. Josh Martin, the COO of Crazy Horse, is constantly having soil samples taken to make sure the nutrients are correct, spraying the plants to keep diseases like powdery mildew away, and growing clover in between the rows. Yes, they grow clover between the poles to help the bines. Weeds that grow in the field put pressure on the bines, stealing nutrients from the soil and potentially introducing bugs and diseases into the field. By planting a legume like clover, it keeps the other weeds down, and sucks up excess water without challenging the bines. I though it just looked like a messy field – but no, this is smart farming. Then comes the harvest, preparing the hop cones, and getting ready for the next planting.

You can’t believe the work it takes to grow hops. Well…. I couldn’t. image credit: Crazy Horse Hops

Now in the third growing season, the expansion at CHH has been amazing. There is an additional 18 acres out behind the harvesting building growing Cascade, Copper, and Crystal hops. This year will be the first harvest on these rows, but there are even more coming down the pike. A full forty acres out back (a true back forty) has been planted with Zeus, Crystal, Comet, and Copper hops, but not strung this year. Next year’s harvest is going to be huge.

The 68 acres now planted makes CHH the third largest single location hop farm in the Midwest, impressive by any standard. Just to give you an idea of the work involved, that’s 1000 plants/acre and therefore 2000 strings/acre. With the back forty coming into play next year, that will be nearly 140,000 strings – each one hand tied, and about 200,000 hand-training procedures (many plants are trained twice). But even that isn’t enough for the guys at CHH; eventually they are looking at 110 planted acres. My back hurts just thinking about it.

What do you do with hops? Crazy Horse is going to be producing a lot of hop cones. The question then becomes, what do you do with all those hops? The majority of the crop is dried, baled, and then pelleted for long-term storage without loss of oils and acids. But the harvest season allows for other hop uses in beer – wet hopping of fresh hopping.

Wet hopped beers have become an autumn staple in recent years. In these beers, the undried hops are thrown into the boil or in the fermenter to give a fresher, danker flavor. Since the hops haven’t been dried, their moisture level is much higher, about 80%, hence the name wet hops. This means that a lot more wet hops have to be used to make a beer as compared to dried and pelleted hops, and it also means that time is of the essence. The fresh picked hop cones really need to be in a beer within 24 hours in order to prevent breakdown or mildew. This means that wet hop beers are limited to right around the harvest time of year, and the timing of brew, harvest and delivery must be spot on. For the 2018 harvest, Rhinegeist has already reserved 600 lbs of CHH wet hop this year, Three Floyds has asked for about 200 lbs., while many smaller breweries will get 25-50 lbs.

Indiana City use CHH hops each year, here are some wet hops from the old harvestor. image credit: Crazy Horse Hops

Slightly different are the fresh hopped beers, sometimes whole cone hop beers. These beers live somewhere between wet hop and conventional pelleted hop beers. The hops have been dried, but not baled or pelletized, so they are still in the shape of whole hop cones (ie. whole cone beers). Dried hops can last for about a year if stored properly (pelleted hops are good for three years or more), so again they fall somewhere in the middle. Sierra Nevada uses alot of whole cone hops; they have advantages like being a bit less harsh, and are especially good for dry hopping because they float. But they have some disadvantages too, like lower alpha acid utilization and a longer boil being needed to get the lupulin out of the cones. That’s why most people use chopped and pressed hops.

That’s the final option – to pelletize the hops after they’re baled. This makes for more consistent beers across batches, and they take much less room than whole cone hops. A sample from every fifth bale or so gets sent to Purdue for analysis of alpha acid content (the compounds that become bitter in the boil). Therefore, to meet customer needs or variety averages, the bales can be blended when it comes time to pelletize the hops. These are then packaged under nitrogen and are good for several years.

The pelleted hops are stored cold at CHH and can be sold all year long. So, between the wet hops, the fresh whole cone hops, and the pelleted hops, CHH has a lot of product to sell. This requires that someone go out to tell brewers what they have, what the prices are, and how they can get them hops WITHOUT signing the dreaded 7-8 year contract with one of the big hop producers. This is a definite advantage to a smaller, local hop farm that is still large enough to meet all of a brewery’s hop needs, but it takes time to sell and that’s time they can’t spend on the farm.

CHH’s hop offerings don’t end with what they grow and harvest. They can source baled hops of many varieties. If it can be had, CHH can buy it, pelletize it, and delivery it to a brewery. Terre Haute Brewing Company just called CHH last week asking for 200 lbs of Citra hops, so the word is getting out there that CHH can be a hop supplier as well as a hop grower. The best part about the relationship is that the brewer saves shipping costs for the hops, and can get them much sooner, while also getting a chance to meet the CHH guys, get a tour of the farm, and talk about all the possibilities. It’s good all around.

Conclusion. Josh, Ryan, and Todd are doing some amazing things at Crazy Horse Hops. They’re getting bigger, and they’re offering a great variety of products to the brewers of the Midwest. The thing is, that’s not all they’re doing. They are now expanding their building, are ready to unveil a hop trail passport for breweries using CHH hops, and they may even put in a taproom of their own. But despite these additions, the most amazing expansion is their new hop harvestor – the Wolf WHE513. We’ll talk about this monster and harvesting process next time.


banner image credit: Daily Reporter

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