Crazy Horse Hops Rides the Knife Edge with Covid and Mother Nature

Crazy Horse Hops Rides the Knife Edge with Covid and Mother Nature

by Mark E. Lasbury for Indiana On Tap

To make an investment such as starting a company is a huge risk. But it’s an even bigger risk when so many things turn out to be beyond your control – like the weather or a global pandemic. Crazy Horse Hops just west of Knightstown has made a huge investment in land, plants, equipment, and time, and now it’s about time for the investment to start paying off – if they could keep the world from fighting them so hard.

Several years ago the developers of Crazy Horse Hops invested in 110 acres of land, enough to make them one of the largest hop farms outside of the Pacific Northwest. They had the will and the expertise, and they set out to grow quality hops in Indiana. The set plants and let them mature – hops is one of the crops that don’t pay off until two or three years after you start growing them. They invested in a Wolf 513 harvester and a huge processing facility for harvesting, drying, pelletizing, and packaging hops. And eventually the hops started to produce.

Then life and chance entered the picture. First they had to endure an amazingly cold and wet spring that held them back just when they were expanding their varieties and acreage. Then one of their partners passed away much too young, which put a strain on them both emotionally and financially. Then they had the second wet and cold spring in a row. Not good when you are trying to build a solid base for yields in the years to come.

This is where the Wolf 513 takes the cones from the bines. image credit: Walter

Then they had the Japanese Beetle problem. Crazy Horse planted a small test plot of Sirachi Ace hops, which originated in Japan. That first year for them (2017), the Japanese Beetle population exploded and it seemed they had a particular affinity for the Sirachi Ace hops. They left all the other hop varieties alone for the most part, but decimated their test plot of Sirachi Ace. Several natural disasters have held them back from the break out success — and then Covid-19 hit and breweries didn’t make much beer for months. What else could possibly happen?

When all this falls on your head, you can either give up or get down to business. Todd, Ryan and the rest of Crazy Horse chose to double down and make things work. They still have all that expertise and they’re going to make it pay off. They are now growing 69 acres of hops, including three varieties of experimental hops from the revitalized USDA public hop breeding program, sponsored in part by Brewers Association. But they are also taking on other programs. They grow sunflowers and clover (as a cover plant) and are bringing in bees to produce Crazy Horse Honey. They grow sweet corn as a side crop to sell at local farmers’ markets (take my word for it, this is great corn).

They process hops for other Indiana hop growers, as many as 7-10 other farms this year alone, but even here they’re fighting the world. The Indiana Hop Growers Association had 17 or more members recently, but the weather, the difficulty of growing hops, and the pandemic has reduced that number greatly. So even though they have this amazing facility to process hops for anyone that brings them by, the customers for such a service are dwindling. However, that may change in the future. Crazy Horse is looking for farmers that might want to contract grow some hops on their land, under the Crazy Horse brand.

That may seem a simple enough thing, but for Ryan, Todd and the Crazy Horse team, the selection of growing partners is critical. They have spent years developing processes and techniques to ensure the best outcomes, and partner growers would have to embrace these processes and have the fortitude to stick out difficult times just like Crazy Horse has done. This is only way that they can assure brewery customers that Crazy Horse hops will remain of the highest quality and consistency.

image credit: Crazy Horse Hops

Growing, harvesting, and processing hops each require care and detail. I got to see part of the harvest last week and it truly is amazing. Crazy Horse is in the middle of a solid 3-4 weeks of harvest with two shifts a day. They have a 7am-3pm shift and a 1pm-9pm shift to get every set of hops done in 24 hours and on cooling, but it’s hard when half their workforce just headed back to college. It’s just one more challenge to overcome.

Crazy Horse’s methods for the harvest and processing of the hops are big and bulky, but also finely tuned. The Wolf 513 can process 400-800 bines of hops every hour (hence the name, an average), meaning that it can strip the hop flowers (cones) from the vine (bine) they grow on and then clean them, sort them, and get rid of the leaves and other detritus before sending the cones on their way. For wet hops they get packaged and will be in a beer within 12-24 hours. For dried hops, they get conveyed up three stories to the drier.

The drier is geared to handle 7-14 inches of hop cones because that gives the most consistent drying. At Pacific Northwest hop farms, they stack the hops more than three feet deep when they dry them. This leads to inconsistent drying. At Crazy Horse, here are sensors all over the place to tell when the right moisture level has been achieved, when and where the hops will be conditioned (final drying), and then sent off for baling, storage, or pelletizing.

Every step is thought out – Crazy Horse won’t even pelletize hops until the ambient temperature is below 45˚F. The die for creating the pellets heats up as the cones are compressed, and heat harms the hop oils. Therefore, they either wait until it’s cold outside – or – they could use their new liquid nitrogen cooler for the die (but they haven’t tried that yet). However, they don’t have to worry about drying just yet, right now many of the orders are for wet hops.

The trellises will be empty now until spring. image credit: Walter

Huge orders of Comet hops from Rhinegeist Brewery in Cincinnati and Three Floyds Brewing in Munster IN means that things are picking up again. That’s welcome news, but there’s still a lot of work to be done. During the harvest period Crazy Horse has been hosting brewery and industry personnel to see the operation and note how much care is taken in producing hops for them. Todd told me that never has a brewery visited the farm and then not ended up buying hops from them. Several breweries even have a beer with Crazy Horse hops on tap all the time. Pax Verum is a particularly good customer, as are Rhinegeist, Hoosier Brewing, and Guggman Haus.

Breweries understand the quality of Crazy Horse Hops, and once again this hop farm is ready for a break out year and increased stability for the years to come. They’ve put in the work and had the stick-to-it-iveness to make sure that the people and breweries who have put their trust in them get everything they could possibly want or need. From selling side crops and making honey to being a resource for hop developers and agricultural schools, the people of Crazy Horse have done, and will do, whatever it takes to make this venture a long-term success. Be part of that success by buying their hops if you’re a brewery, or asking your favorite brewery if they are using Crazy Horse Hops. It’ll be worth it.

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