07 Sep Honey Creek Hops is a Small But Important Part of Your Fall Beers
Walter and I were sitting at Garfield Brewing on a recent Saturday evening when co-owners Gary and Kathy Kinnett walked up with two big bags of fresh hops. Being both curious and enthusiastic, I immediately ran up and buried my nose into one of the hop bags. I guess I could have waited until Gary put them down, but I was overcome.
I asked where the hops came from and he pointed to them table next to us, “You can talk to them, they raised these very hops!” It turned out that the couple he was referring to was Vickie and Dennis Foran, owners of Honey Creek Hops in Greenwood. Located in the Smith Valley area, Honey Creek is a growing operation, with a half-acre of hops under cultivation now.
Growing hops in Indiana isn’t common, but it’s not unheard of either. What is more rare is a couple deciding to grow hops when they aren’t commercial farmers to begin with. Dennis and Vickie’s experience with farming was limited to their flower gardens for beauty and to support the insect and bird populations, and their family veggie garden each year.
So why grow hops? They aren’t the standard crop or botanical that someone looking to sell some product would look to first. Flowers sell, so does corn or carrots, but hops? Vickie said, “Originally we were going to grow chrysanthemums, but we couldn’t compete with the big box stores selling them. A neighbor suggested hops and then we started looking into growing them. We also talked to Ryan Hammer at Crazy Horse Hops and visited his original half acre hop yard.” From there they started to do a lot of studying.
One of the things they learned early on is that growing hops is like painting. You spend as much time prepping as you do actually doing the work. Vickie said, “Before you can get growing, the land has to be prepped, the trellis (ours is 15’ tall) has to be erected, irrigation designed and set-up and the plants have to be planted. You also need to think about things like fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides, and insecticides. We do try to stay as chemical free as possible, using natural fertilizers, insecticidal soap and using some of our flowers to pull the less desirable insects (Japanese beetles for example) to the flowers and away from the growing hops.”
She added, “The actual growing season is generally from April through August, but there is always something to keep you busy.” They don’t regret the decision, but apparently hop growing was more work than they had imagined. The quintessential example of that? – the first time they put plants in the ground.
Dennis told me, “We bought our first plants (Cascades) in 2015 from Sandy Ridge Farm in Zeeland, Michigan. With the help of some very good friends, we got all 210 plants planted on a Saturday in September. That night we got one of Indiana’s torrential rains and our little hop yard was under two feet of water on Sunday morning. We had to literally wade through our hop yard, find the plants, dig them up, and put them back into trays and let them dry before we could replant about a week later. We found all 210 of them and while we did lose a few of them, we were able to replace them.”
After that first season of growth to strengthen the plants (no hops are harvested for a while), they added some Columbus plants and they were off to the races. As of 2020, they have about 300 bines each spring, split between those two varieties, and quickly acknowledge the help and advice they have gotten from other hop growers. Vickie told me, “Hop growers are very open to sharing information and helping each other. It seems that we learn something new each growing season. Crazy Horse Hops has been a great resource and friend over the years.”
The Honey Creek harvest each year has been about 125 and 165 pounds, depending on the weather. With this relatively small amount, they focus on providing fresh hops, also called “wet hops” because they haven’t been dried, to local breweries. Wet hopped beers are a big deal with craft beer fans because the hop oils are fresh and at their highest levels when just harvested. But that’s just it – the hops have to be harvested before they are used.
If you have a single bine of hops, or perhaps 5-10 bines, it’s no big deal to cut them down and pick the hop cones off yourself. Some people have hop harvest parties to pick cones – they make me feel like we live back in the 1800s, like a quilting bee or barn raising. But if you’ve got a half-acre, this isn’t efficient. So the Forans turn to Ryan Hammer at Crazy Horse and their mammoth Wolf 513 harvester.
“We, as well as others, have taken our hops to the Crazy Horse farm to run through their Wolf Harvester which is an amazing piece of equipment. The first year we harvested, we had about 30 people helping us, cutting the hops down from the trellis, stripping the bines by hand, and then sorting the cones and leaves. This took at least 12 hours. This year we had a great group of 14 who helped us cut the bines down from the trellis, and with the Wolf, the processing time was down to a little more than one hour!”
After the wet hops are harvested, you need to get them into a beer fast. This means that a hop farm needs to have a relationship with a brewery or breweries when they start up their harvest. The Forans are lucky that way. They said, “We are very happy and fortunate to have long-standing friendships and relationships with three great local breweries. Each has brewed a fresh hopped beer with our hops for several years now. Each of the breweries has helped us during harvest time as well – truly ‘Local Supporting Local.’” Those breweries are Garfield Brewing in Indy, Quaff ON! Brewing in Nashville, and Shale Creek Brewing in Franklin.
I asked Garfield Brewing about the harvest ale they are making with Honey Creek Hops. GM Josh Haines said that the Hoosier Harvest IPA is coming along fine with a mid-September release planned. He told me, “This beer uses wet hops from both Honey Creek Hops and community grown hops from our hop program we started last year (also uses local malts from Sugar Creek Malts). We’re so grateful for the help Dennis and Vickie have given our community hop growers. They actually set us up with the farm we purchased the plants from (shoutout to Sandy Ridge who helped us immensely) and helped the community hop farmers by answering any questions they had about plant care.”
He added, “The hops we used from Honey Creek are Cascade and Columbus, while the community grown hops are Centennial, Saaz, Nugget, and Chinook. One of the reasons that we love doing a wet hop IPA each year is the freshness! Anytime you dry or freeze a food product, you inherently lose some qualities of that product, so being able to take a hop directly from the vine to the beer within 24 hours gives it a different flavor profile that you just can’t get from dried, pelletized hops. We kind of compare it to a fresh garden tomato vs. canned tomatoes. Can you make great food with canned tomatoes? Of course! But do you get a different quality and flavor from a fresh garden tomato? Heck yes you do.”
I also talked to Mike Baker at Shale Creek Brewing about his Two Creeks Harvest Ale using Honey Creek Hops. He told me, “Brewing with fresh wet hops only happens one time each year and what makes this so special is the fact that each version is different – all made possible by Indiana’s growing season and the hard work put in by Dennis and Vicki Foran. Three years ago Shale Creek Brewing and Honey Creek Hops began a partnership to create a harvest ale once a year utilizing locally grown fresh, wet hops. This beer is an American Pale ale that we have aptly named Two Creeks Harvest Ale.”
Mike continued, “Harvest normally happens the first or second week of August and we brew with the wet whole cones within 48 hours of picking so as to capture the very essence of those magical little flowers. This year’s version included both of their Cascade and Columbus varieties and we used a whopping 27 lbs. in our 5 bbl brew. Currently, Two Creeks is nearing the end of fermentation and we will be adding one last addition of dry, pelletized hops to aid in aroma. These dry hops have also been obtained through another local grower making this an all Indiana/local hopped beer. We anticipate the release date to be the 2nd or 3rd week of September.”
Growing hops is a lot of work, but it is a labor of love for Dennis and Vickie. The best part is – we get to share in their craft and now that we know more about them, we can better appreciate the work and love they put into this venture. Vickie said, “We feel very blessed by this adventure … we have made so many friends along the way … friendships that mean more than words can say. Thank you all!”
banner image credit: Great Fermentations