20 Jun Indiana’s Largest Hops Farm Poised for More Growth, More Success, as Two-Year Anniversary Approaches
Crazy Horse Hops sits just a few miles off Interstate 70 in Henry County, about 25 miles east of Indianapolis, but it’s far enough down a series of narrow, crumbling country roads to feel like it’s in the middle of nowhere. You’ll know when you’ve found it, of course, because there’s no mistaking a hop farm with its endless rows of twenty-foot-tall telephone poles propping up cables and strings, all of which will be nearly invisible behind a tangle of green hop bines by late summer. Just a few short years ago, the now trellised property was just like any of the other tracts of Hoosier cropland around it. It is now the largest hop farm in the state.
When Ryan Hammer started growing hops on his own property in 2012, he didn’t see it as much more than a hobby. He hoped to sell some hops to a few regional breweries, but lacked the resources or business partners to take it to the next level. That is until local young farmer Josh Martin ran into Ryan’s mom at a local store (Martin and Hammer had both attended the same high school, though they hadn’t stayed in touch after graduating) and found out about his old school friend’s new undertaking. Martin, who had graduated from Purdue University with a dual major in Ag-business and Entrepreneurship, was intrigued, and the two started talking about what it would take to make Ryan’s side gig a full-time business. They connected with local dentist Todd Kaminski to work as their liaison with investors, and Kaminski became the CFO of the fledgling business.
“Josh made the point once that when you’re young and have the energy to start a business, you often don’t have the resources or finances,” said Kaminski when I sat down with the trio at their farm in early June. “And when you’re old enough to have the resources and finances, you often don’t have the energy. The three of us are able to cover all of that and bring different things to the table.”
Crazy Horse Hops officially went into business in July 2015, though it wouldn’t be till the following April they actually got their trellis poles in the ground and planted their first hop rhizomes. They planted five acres each of American craft beer staple hops Cascade and Chinook, and, surprisingly, a couple rows of Sorachi Ace, a Japanese hop that produces unique lemon and herbal aromas. They planted a separate field of eighteen acres this Spring with Crystal hops, more Cascade, and the little known Michigan Copper varietal, a Wolverine-state strain that Hammer says is similar to Cascade but features more melon and tropical notes than citrus. The Crazy Horse team have made trips to hop farms in Michigan (as well as to Yakima valley in Washington, the epicenter of American hop growing) to form business relationships and, initially, to learn more about commercial hop growing.
“When I first started growing hops, I’ll be honest: I didn’t really know what I was doing,” jokes Hammer, the most gregarious of the crew. Fortunately, he proved a quick study, learning everything he could from the internet and asking questions whenever he could. One of the challenges he faced was dealing with Indiana’s unique soil. Hops typically grow best in well-drained soil, something the Hoosier state has in short supply. “I know the soil type and chemistry mattered, but I didn’t know what I was actually looking for. That’s where Josh really came in.”
A third generation farmer, Josh Martin put his knowledge of commercial farming and his hereditary knack for understanding his land to good use as the team planned out their hop growing operation. After doing soil analysis, Martin was surprised and pleased to find 85% of the farm’s soil consisted of silt loam, a well-draining soil type that would be excellent for growing hops. “Generally speaking,” Martin explained, “the better soil is for growing corn, the worse it is for hops, and vice versa.” The trio were fortunate to find their land was as close to ideal for growing hops as they would be able to find in the region. The unique terroir of their soil and climate produces hops that offer subtle riffs on the classic Northwest flavor profiles craft beer drinkers are used to.
Martin went on to relate a conversation he had a couple years back with a business associate. “He said to me, ‘I’ve known for about two years what the hops industry was missing: real farmers.’ A lot of people go into this without a lot of background in growing anything else. When we were starting out, I asked questions like What’s the soil chemistry? What’s the soil PH? What grew here before? Those are questions that come naturally if you’re a farmer. If you don’t know those things, you’re setting yourself up for failure.”
It’s pretty clear the Crazy Horse team are setting themselves up for success. Shy of their two year business anniversary, they are already the largest hop grower in the state by a long shot, and in the next two to three years, they plan to go from their current 28 planted acres to over one hundred, with room to double that again. They’re currently completing a processing and warehouse complex on the property that will allow them to not only handle their own crop, but also process hops for other growers on a contractual basis using a new German hop picker that will process 500 bines per hour, quite an improvement over their current machine. They also have the ability to serve as a distributor of materials for other regional growers, and will soon be selling online to homebrewers. Hammer serves as the president of the Indiana Hop Growers Association, and wants to see the fledgling industry become more established in the state. The team would like Crazy Horse to serve as the processing center for a variety of satellite growers they would supply with materials and knowledge. “Eventually, I’d like us to be the largest hop distributor in the Midwest,” said Kominski.
So who buys all these hops? Crazy Horse has been able to forge relationships with quite a few respected Indiana brewers, including Indianapolis stalwarts Sun King Brewing. Last Fall, Sun King released a special edition of their beloved Osiris Pale Ale that had been dry-hopped with 450 pounds of Chinook hops from Crazy Horse. They’ve also sold hops to Flat 12 Bierwerks, Goshen City Brewing, Indiana City Brewing, and Wooden Bear Brewing, which operates in Knightstown just down the road from the farm. Crazy Horse is in the process of developing relationships with more breweries, and has hopes of beginning to supply some western Ohio breweries in the near future as well.
How did Crazy Horse Hops get their name? The story is more direct than you might think: a crazy horse used to live in one of their barns. “She broke a few tail bones and ruined a few days, for sure,” joked Martin. A lot of folks might think starting a hop farm 2,000 miles from Yakima Valley, in the heart of corn and soybean country, is a crazy idea. Josh Martin, Ryan Hammer, and Todd Kaminski have taken what might have sounded far-fetched a couple years ago and turned it into a sustainable business, and their community has been supportive. As the largest hop producer in their state, they’ve only planted about 10% of the acreage they have room for. Like one of their hop bines in Spring, the Crazy Horse Hops boys are still climbing, sending out feelers, reaching high toward the bright Indiana sun.