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Brewer tables similar to this one at Draught Works in Missoula, Mont., are used as laboratories where brewers monitor and record various levels, ingredients and recipes for craft beers. (Madison Dapcevich, Special to Agweek)

Hops abrew in Montana

Montanans are known for their love of good, hearty beer, and that love is spilling over into the hops industry.

According to the Montana Brewers Association, a statewide association of breweries organized for the purpose of promoting the production and sales of Montana beers, there are 53 licensed breweries operating in the state, up from just 33 licensed breweries four years ago. Montana breweries use more than 7 million pounds of malted grain annually, approximately half of which is grown in the state. With sales in 24 states to more than 5,000 retailers, the beer industry generates approximately $36 million in revenue with more than 500 employees.

Montana is already well known as a premier malt barley producer, but Joshua Townsley, MBA president and owner of Tamarack Brewery in Missoula, Mont., says brewers across the state also want locally sourced hops.

“People are looking for different flavor profiles,” he says. “Hops are kind of the spice of life — the things that give different variety. These are all the unique things that people look to when they want different flavor profiles and complexities.”

Craft breweries use more hops per barrel than corporate producers, so as the craft beer industry has increased the production of hops has, as well. In terms of total market share, the craft beer industry accounts for about 13 percent of the beer industry.

Increased presence

Nearly 40 years ago, there were fewer than 100 breweries across the nation. At the end of last year, however, nearly 4,200 breweries were operating in the U.S.

Tom Blitz, owner and founder of Glacier Hops, says the net number of new breweries is about one every 11 hours, and hops production worldwide is on the incline as the beer industry decentralizes from big producers to local brewers.

Blitz began growing hops in Whitefish, Mont., three and a half years ago as a trial project considering the potential for a new commercial crop and to identify which of the 46 varieties currently being grown will best meet the needs of Montana brewers. Providing fresh hops in-season, Glacier Hops offers hops grown in Montana in both pellet and dried whole leaf form, as well as high-quality imported hops from Germany, Czechoslovakia and Slovenia, and numerous proprietary U.S. varieties.

In 2015, domestic hops production was at its highest since 1992, with an average of 1,807 pounds harvested per acre at an average price of $4.38 per pound. This makes the U.S. the world’s largest hops producer, holding 38 percent of the world’s hops acreage and percentage share. Nearly all commercially grown hops in the nation come from Washington, Oregon or Idaho.

Matt Blair, a professional brewer at Draught Works in Missoula, Mont., has been brewing for 6 years and has seen a move toward more locally grown hops.

“It’s cool to be a part of a place that supplies the world with brewing malt, and we have that resource right here at home,” he says. “As far as hops go, people are starting to figure it out and make movements to make a hop farm happen. That’s exciting for us brewers here, because it keeps local ingredients at hand.”

A sensitive growth

Growing hops is a precarious and difficult production all too familiar to Blitz.

The hop is a dried cone that must be removed from its brine and dehydrated within 24-hours to stabilize and preserve the unique oils and acids needed for brewing. The dried, featherweight cones are then compacted into bales, frozen and packaged in a UV-resistant Mylar packaging with a nitrogen flush to remove damaging oxygen. Only a small percentage of hops can be used fresh, and that is typically only during harvest season. Paired with a sensitive growing cycle and a need for specialized equipment, Blitz recommends hops is not for the faint of heart.

“There is a temptation in agriculture to look for the next great alternative crop, but growing hops is a commitment,” he says. “It is a much bigger endeavor than I had ever dreamed about. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. Hops are unlike most crops in Montana, and it is most like growing grapes from a capital and labor perspective.”

Throughout the course of the study, Blitz has created a vertically integrated harvesting and processing operation. Because of their sensitive nature, he says the critical issue lies in the time it takes to transport hops from where they are grown to where they will be processed. For his operation, that is 10 miles.

Blitz believes the future of the Montana hops industry has potential, but it will take time to build because of the attention craft brewers have to quality. Those in the brewery industry look forward to the day when there can be a “Made only in Montana” beer.

“People love Montana and the image that it conjures up,” Townsley says. “There are few places left in this world that leaves that image of something that people want to be a part of.”

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