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Join Nicole and Chris from Great Lakes Hops as they talk about growing hops and the many benefits hops can offer, even if you don’t want to brew your own beer!
What You’ll Learn
- Learn more about Great Lake Hops
- The amazing history of hops
- Different verities of hops
- Reasons to grow hops if you aren’t a homebrewer
- Choosing hops for your climate (hot/cold, wet/dry)
- Basics of growing hops- soil type, planting, water and lighting requirements, fertilization, trellising, winter prep, etc
- Pest management
- More than just for brewing- hops for bees and chickens
Our guest today is Chris from Great Lakes Hops and Dutch Touch Growers. A former business executive, Chris traded his suit in for jeans and jumped into growing hops full time. Today Chris is passionate about growing and teaching about hops and shares some incredible in-depth information in this episode.
Resources & Links Mentioned
- Great Lakes Hops on Instagram
- Great Lakes Hops on Facebook
- Great Lakes Hops on YouTube
- Great Lakes Hops Website
- Email us! [email protected]
- Hops for bees:
- Hops for chickens:
- Hops for other livestock:
*Denotes affiliate links
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Announcer: Welcome to the Backyard Bounty podcast from heritageacresmarket.com where we talk about all things backyard poultry, beekeeping, gardening, sustainable living, and more. And now, here's your host, Nicole.
Nicole: Good morning everybody and thank you for joining us for another episode of Backyard Bounty. Today I'm joined by Chris with Great Lakes Hops and he's here to talk to us about everything that we need to know about growing hops and some kind of interesting information about them. So, Chris, thank you so much for joining me today.
Chris: You're welcome. It's nice to be here. Thank you for having me.
Nicole: Of course. So I actually found out about the company because I purchased some hops from you guys earlier this year and it was my first year with hops and I actually ended up purchasing hops from a different company first and then there was some issues with my order. I didn't think I was going to get it so then I ordered from you guys and found some varieties that were better suited. And the hops that I ended up getting from you guys have done amazing and so I wanted to do a podcast about hops and I was so excited that you said yes. So thank you for joining me. I'm so excited. Can you tell us a little bit about the company and a little bit about your background?
Chris: Absolutely. So I'm with Great Lakes Hops. We're a smaller greenhouse and propagation facility located in Zeeland and Holland, Michigan. If we were on TV right now or you could see me, I would be like a true Michigander and I'd hold up my hand and show you where that is based upon our hand, but it's on the west coast of Michigan, right near the lake shore of Lake Michigan. Our company started with flowers and succulents and all kinds of pretty things, but we saw through some time that there was an ongoing need for propagators to grow and help produce hops. So we don't produce rhizomes, which are just a cutting of the plant. We actually produce new plant material with brand new root stock.
Chris: So I personally started out as a hop farmer, purchasing from Great Lakes Hops back in 2011 and discovered all of the challenges that hop farmers run into and as I did that, I became more and more connected to the company because I was calling them ever other week asking questions about how the heck am I supposed to grow these things. So my background was hospitality and hospitality management, so I was directly connected to the beverage industry. Wine, beer, coffee, and that was something that I knew I wanted to be around but I didn't want to be at that end-user piece, I wanted to be closer to the beginning. Farming was always something that's a big deal here in Michigan. We've got amazing apple, blueberry, cherry farms, let alone the larger resources like corn, soy, potatoes, all grown here. So we're a strong agricultural state also.
Chris: And then for those that do know about Michigan, Grand Rapids, Michigan isn't far away, which is currently carrying the title of Beer City, USA, which works out really well in the hop world that we're in here. So about three years ago, I came to Lynn, who is our founder and owner, and proposed that maybe I could use my skill in the restaurant and service industry, where you do aroma and flavor sensories to help advance his proprietary hops. So the proprietary hop line is an extension of what... You had purchased a hop from us that is one of our available US cultivars, that's a Neomexicana. For 10 years, this company, Great Lakes Hops, has been working very much so on producing proprietary hops, which means brand new genetics that have new amazing aromas and flavors and we've been doing that to try to make them publicly available to the growers and the brewers. Because, just like fruits and vegetables that have copyrights and patents on them, they're not available to all growers, which we do want to make all of ours publicly available to anybody that would like to be part of our grow network.
Chris: So, to date, we have 400 that are in our trial yard and that is where I do most of my work, where we study the 400 brand new cultivar that started out as 500,000, but we also still carry over 40 of the publicly available cultivar. Last I saw, I think that there are, in the US alone, about 80 different cultivar of hops available to purchase and grow as public varieties. So that's kind of where we're at now. We still grow succulents and beautiful things like cactus and fern and all kinds of stuff, which is one division of our company, which is called Dutch Touch Growers and then the other side of it is Great Lakes Hops, which is primarily hops and working with brewers and growers here in the Midwest.
Nicole: So I'm guessing that you like the hops a little bit better than the rest of it?
Chris: You know, it's all really cool. I like the hops because of the unique piece the plant plays inside of the beverage of beer and now we're finding that it can make its way into different cool beverages like the meads that are very much so kind of Old World culture. But alcoholic beverages that are made with honey and then also in ciders, which beingg in an apple state, we have a lot of cider mills popping up and such. And then, obviously, I just think it's really neat because it's got a heritage and a history behind it. So yeah, I lean towards the hops but my wife would tell you that the succulents are a lot cooler. Which they are pretty neat. Coolest thing about the succulents is you can go out and get a succulent and not water it for three months and it's still going to live.
Nicole: Yeah, those are my favorite.
Chris: Absolutely, and there's so many different kinds. And they look like they're from another planet. So we're pretty excited about our succulents too. It seems like whenever the brewers come in, they can't help but go and venture in the greenhouses that have the succulents too.
Nicole: So you do both of those on the same site?
Chris: Yeah, the public varieties and the succulents. So Dutch Touch is the mother company that houses all of the mother varieties. And I say mother varieties, those are... We have a mother stock that is the cleanest stock we can get a hold of. So we constantly try to source our stock from the US clean inventory and clean just meaning that they've been indexed and checked. That doesn't mean that the plan is clean completely of any kind of virus, but we do the very best we can to get the cleanest stock we can to produce brand new plants. But the proprietary hops are actually eight miles away at our research facility which is where I spend most of my time at.
Nicole: Okay. So you said there's all of these varieties of hops. How many of those, if any, are native to the US?
Chris: There's actually quite a few that genetically are connected to the US. The oldest hops that we can find today would go all the way back to Egypt, and nobody has access to those, per se, but I would think of it like a dog. Every dog lineage can kind of go all the way back to the wolf. So even an American hop has lineage to Europe, but the big American hops are your Chinook, your Cascade, your Centennial. But that number as active today? I'm not even clear on because they kind of come and go as the brewer trends pick them up. Not all hops are available every single year and then there's always divergence and there's new hops coming out all the time. Just in our hops alone, we have six brand new proprietary hops that are now available out in the market that I'm sure a grower out in the Pacific Northwest wouldn't even know about as of yet because we're just little old Great Lakes Hops in Michigan.
Chris: And then also, there's heritage hops, which means there's hops that have made it over from Europe with our descendants that they brought them over from their farms, they planted them in their land and then somebody found them behind a barn or along a tree line and then they say, "Hey, I've got this really strange plant, will you check it out?" So we go get the material, we source it. We do the genetic testing and we find out that this is an Old World noble hop that hasn't been brewed with for a hundred years, but somebody could then take that, clone it, and say that it's an American hop and, in fact, it wouldn't be, because it's genetics is European. So, hard question to answer.
Nicole: So brewing with hops, is that something that then came over with the settlers?
Chris: Yeah, absolutely. Originally, hops were... the sole purpose was to preserve the beer. So the term ale and beer are often used together. When in fact, an ale, traditionally would have been a brew that was made with just the malt and then fermentation. So the original beers that were the ales didn't really actually connect to what we see today, which is more connected to an India pale ale or a pale ale, which was simply because there were few sources of clean water to begin with. So by fermenting the water with the grains, you were then killing bacteria and that's how beer became a reliable source of not only nutrient, but liquid for people and then they found that they were able to trade it. So the Old World Europeans, and I keep saying Old World, but it covers a whole area... but Germany and England were some of the first to figure out that they could do some trading of the beers and bartering. But to travel the beer in the casks, it would go bad.
Chris: The hop itself was originally grown as an antimicrobial and one of the things that people really liked about it is the old medicine people would use the lupulin for a lot of different reasons, but the term loopy comes from the word lupulin and it's all about making you feel relaxed, if you will, but it also has an antimicrobial. So they figured out that if they put the hops inside of these beer casks... and I'm really just stripping down the history of it. You can look it up, it's some cool stuff. But they would put it in the beer cask, they would travel it. They would find that the beer would not go bad and that it would still be safe to serve when it got to the trading post that they were looking to barter. But then it would also have these unique new flavors, bitterness and qualities.
Chris: So hopping beer began simply by the simple idea of commerce and then it carried through because people preferred the flavor. And, in fact, in the late 1800s, there was over 77000 acres of hops in Europe. And to put that into perspective, in 2018, I believe there was just under 60000 acres here in North America and that's 2018. So hops had their heyday much before now and it's kind of making a resurgence as we see more and more individuals gravitating towards craft beer. And you can see it even in the large beer world where the Budweisers and the Labatts and the Coors... They're all starting to recognize that the beer drinker enjoys more of these authentic flavors that are connected to all these different beers that have had hops in them for years.
Nicole: So I assume that there's multiple different types of hops and depending on which kind you choose, would have a different flavor in your beer?
Chris: Absolutely, and hops tend to fit into three different categories. There's the aroma hops, there's the bittering hops, and then there's the multi-purpose or the dual-purpose hop. The aroma hop is often heavy in oils and there's two major assets that people measure hops by. They call it alpha and beta acids. The alpha acids are generally where your bittering is, inside the hop. So a lot of hops will be between a 5% even up to a 20% alpha. And then the beta is about half that. So if you have a 12% alpha, often you'll have a 6% beta. Easy way to think about those is like salt and pepper for a chef. It doesn't matter how excessive the number is. It just matters for the brewer that they know so that they're putting the right measurements in. So with the higher betas and the higher oils, you'll get those aroma hops and those super aroma hops will give you flavors that are tropical or sweet, citrus. And citrus can be anything from mango to orange or lemon, grapefruit, very common terms.
Chris: But nowadays, in our breeding program and the breeding programs in the Pacific Northwest, we're getting aromas and flavors like bubblegum or fermenting pineapple. Some really cool hops around the world are coming up with green grape. Grapes in the field is a term that's being chased by everybody. Stone fruit is another one, which is crazy because we're chasing these already known flavors and aromas but inside of a plant that you wouldn't otherwise believe it to be. And then the bittering hops are often more of a lower oil content, higher alpha. Those would give you that kind of dry but yet bittering sensation in a lot of the beers that we all enjoy, like our pilsners, and that's also determined by where you put it in the brew.
Chris: So early in the boil, when you're boiling your beer, the early you put in the hop, the more bittering you'll get and the later you put it in, like right at the end of the boil, the more of the aromas you'll get. And then the dual-purpose hops are just that. They can be used early-, mid- or late-boil and they're very multi-faceted, so they're able to give you your bitter and your aroma, give you those flavors, very multi-textured. But today's hops are very different than the hops of the past because they're, as we would call, super-charged, if you will.
Nicole: And what's the big difference, then?
Chris: Oils. Science is a beautiful thing and that's our world, where we're in. We've realized, and we're not alone in realizing this, that essential oils are everywhere. For me, my aroma sensories began with wine and then it was with cognacs and whiskeys. Then it traveled over to the coffee world, where I spent almost a decade of my life and in that time, we talked about oils a lot and as we got into beer and as I began to understand beer more and worked with a lot of people who have also been looking at hops and beer, this world that we're in, our social network, if you will, has all began to understand that the oils actually are where a lot of those flavors and aromas are.
Chris: So probably one of the most popular is called myrcene and that myrcene oil is where you get all those nice fruity or pine, those really up front floral... just the really robust aromas and our nose tells us what we taste, right? So one of the coolest tests you could do to prove the point would be to take a Life Savers mint, I don't mean to plug Life Savers, but take a mint, a very strong mint, even, and plug your nose first and open the mint. Plug your nose, put the mint in your mouth and suck on it for a little bit and you'll find that you're not really tasting it and then release your nose and all of a sudden you'll taste that mint. That's a huge connection to why the sense of smell is so important to what we taste. And essential oils, for me... Obviously I can look in my bathroom here at home and my wife has them in her diffuser. We use them to create sense of calm, a sense of relaxed or excitement or clean.
Chris: And it's funny how our brains connect smell to so many things that we can relate to. Pleasant is one of those things, and that's why we study the oils so much because the beer, you want it to be pleasant to the consumer, right? We're looking for those flavors and aromas inside of those oils and that's really what's the important part. So we're studying those and we're also studying how to save those oils because they're very volatile and, as I said, you boil the beer and a lot of these oils begin to disappear at 105 degrees and then once you get to 150 degrees, they completely disappear. But those are the same oils that might be found in an onion that you're cooking in your kitchen. The whole reason why you may tear up is connected to the oil that's in that, or poison ivy. Why do we get poison ivy? It's not the leaf, it's the oil. It's something that's really cool in nature, is that they're producing all of these different really cool oils that we can study to find out what makeup that plant and how it can be used in foods and beverages and such.
Nicole: So I guess essential oils aren't just a 2019 or 21st century trend.
Chris: No, no. No trend at all. In fact... and I don't believe that the brewers in the past truly understood, and honestly if a brewer... Let's say a brewer in Germany was brewing a beer and put a hop in and he might say it smells fruity, but was he privy to the opportunity of going, or she, privy to the opportunity of going to a local market and smelling the difference between a nectarine, a tangerine, a mango and an orange? So we're in a difference place in the world today with accessibility. So I think that our palates are becoming more mature. When my own children can tell me the difference between, maybe, bubble gum, cotton candy, cherry and Life Savers. They all have their own unique smell. So no, not just a new thing, but I think it's a new thing that we're becoming very keen to it and understanding how it can be used to manipulate the way we feel.
Nicole: So in a very simplistic level, the different flavors between the different beers, is that predominantly driven by the hop, then?
Chris: Well, we would hope so.
Chris: You know, there's the term adjunct, is a term that I would use. There's many different terms I've heard used. Adjunct is to add into the recipe. So in the beer world, we've even seen people put whole pumpkin pies inside of a beer. They do, they do. I've seen birthday cakes and I've seen entire gourds and sweet potatoes. But obviously, we're kind of purists in our hop world and I would love to see a brewer seek out the flavors of... Let's say they're looking for pineapple. Pineapple, mango and juniper and to be able to use three different hops by looking at the oils they have... because the really funny thing about oils is, is that, for example, myrcene cannot exist without the two other oils that compliment it. So without the geraniol and I believe it's the linalool to be present. If they're not present, then the myrcene's citrus won't be present either. So you need them to interact with each other to create it and we would love to see it be just hops, but... I always tell everbody the best beer in the world is the one that's in your hand so I'm not going to get down on somebody that's drinking a pumpkin beer, but it just may not be my jam.
Nicole: Sure. All of this talk, I wish I had a beer with me right now.
Chris: You know, you should. I have one in my hand and a backup one sitting right next to me, just in case.
Nicole: You always have to have a backup.
Chris: You do. Well, the Beer City people would be disappointed in me if I didn't have a beer while doing this with you.
Nicole: Of course. So what are some reasons that, say, somebody doesn't really have any interest in brewing beer at home... Is there other reasons that they might consider growing hops?
Chris: Well, they're cool. They're really neat to look at. They're aromatics on the hops that the super aromas can give off some really cool aromas. There's proof that they are very good for supporting areas that are trying to work with bees, for example. We actually in our hop field have planted a few different cover crops and one of them was buckwheat and the buckwheat has a flower that gives off a really nice pollen and we were able to witness about four or five different native bee species that we've never seen before. Not that I'm out there studying bees on the regular, but literally seeing bees that I can't think about, in 40 years of my life, that I could recognize, coming out. And then I've seen that there are studies that prove that some of the other insects that are bad for the bees are deterred by those acids we talked about inside of the plant. So super cool that there's this kind of symbiotic relationship that they can have together. They can be used, and we've seen them be used as a great shade plants, and I believe that's what you did, is you used it to shade your chickens in your southwestern Colorado hot sun.
Chris: Is that true?
Nicole: It is.
Chris: That's awesome, because they've got this big beautiful foliage and we say she. We call all the female plants that cone our shes so that they're all female. She has a wicked way about her because the way that she climbs, she's got these very sharp little, tiny burrs that grab anything that you get them near, like a vine. And she can grow up to 18-22 foot, or in any direction she chooses. People have made some pretty interesting covers for their... whether it's a crop or their chickens or they just want something like an arbor that they'd like to use it for.
Chris: Now we're also seeing people use the hops to make candy and then the plant material, the vine, actually can be shaped into any shape that you so desire. A lot like a grapevine, but a little bit more pliable, and if you do it while it's green, it will dry hard as a rock. So wreaths, we're seeing a lot of people using them to make wreath-type material and very festive things. So there's a million ways you could use it, I'm sure, but those are some of the... it's more of a decorative thing, is what we've seen people do with the hop plant.
Nicole: I know for myself, personally, we live here in southern Colorado. It very regularly breaks 100 degrees. In fact, it's almost October and I think it was 96 today. It's just hot and dry and windy all the time. So we had challenges with putting shade cloth or something like that on our chicken coops because then the wind would come through and they would get destroyed. So I wanted to try something more organic or plant something. Trees take forever to grow. A lot of the flowers that were vining flowers, like morning glories, aren't safe for the chickens to eat, if they were to do so, and they eat everything. So I ended up stumbling upon hops and I was so excited that you guys had that Neomexicana because it's so hot and dry here. I was like, "Oh, hops, these look perfect but there's no way they're going to grow here." And then I did some more research because I'm stubborn, then that's how I found about you guys. And I have to say that I've been so amazed with them."
Nicole: I actually, like I mentioned earlier, ordered those other hops from somebody else, and those other hops that came were like in a big one-gallon pot and I planted them and they didn't really do a whole lot. And then I ordered some rhizomes of a different variety. They just died. And the plants I got from you guys, at first I was a little concerned because it was just this little plug with this little couple-inch twig of hops vine starting and I went, "Well, it's really hot here and we'll just hope for the best." And I swear, you can sit there and watch them grow. They have grown so fast and they've done a great job of covering our coop. They have flowered and stuff and it's been super fun, but to go full circle on my little tangent here, the other reason that I really liked them was, like you mentioned, after planting them, I actually found out that the Hopuard strips, which is really common for beekeepers to kill the Varroa mites, it's made out of the hop beta acid.
Nicole: So my hope was that now that I have these plants, the bees will go forage the pollen and then just naturally get exposed to that and hope for some mite resistance. And then even more, because these are apparently the greatest plant ever, and I'm sure I'll mispronounce this, but lupulin, maybe?
Chris: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Nicole: I think that's the one you mentioned earlier has some natural antibiotics that they've proven to control some certain pathogens inside of the chicken's gut. So the hops, for me, were perfect. Provided shade, provided mite resistance for my bees. Mite support, I guess, not mite resistance, and a natural antibiotic for my chickens. So that... and they grow out here in the 100 degree hot wind. Amazing.
Chris: Absolutely and that's the beauty... That's evolution and genetics for you, because the Neomexicana hops were absolutely designed to be able to handle... as their name, the derivative Neomexicana, it was to be able to produce hops in a region that otherwise wouldn't be able to support it. I mean, the easiest way to figure out where hops would grow best, in most cases, would be along the 45th Parallel. So if you look at Washington State, Oregon, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, upstate New York and travel all the way over to Europe. There's a clean line where many of the hop regions are located. That doesn't mean that they can't grow elsewhere. Some of the coolest hops in the world come from New Zealand and Australia, just the opposite side of the 45th Parallel, right? The other 45th.
Chris: And then the Neomexicana, it's become a real popular thing for us, and we've made a lot of really cool friends down in the southwest of the United States. And there's cool ones, there's one called Multihead, there's Neo1, there's Amalia, and Willow Creek, just to name four of the more common. Multihead is sometimes called Medusa, that's all about copyrights and stuff, but we'll call it Multihead for now. But they're super cool. I actually just had one of the ones that we're working with in our trial yard that has... her mother is an Amalia and her father is this super expressive European hop that's going to give her lots of different aromas, strong citrus, but she can also grow, then, in our region. So the funny thing is, that many of our people that grow here in the Midwest struggle growing the Neomexicanas.
Chris: There's one farm that I'm proud to promote, Mr. Wizard Farms in eastern Michigan, have figured it out. And it really has to do with having stronger winds, sandy soil, plenty of sun, and sometimes you just avoid watering them. And the cool thing about a hop plant is it needs to be challenged. It needs to struggle a little bit to be strong. The only thing I can tell you, with yours, is it drinks a lot of nutrient and it's going to dig deeper and deeper. So if you ever think you want to move your hops, you've got to do that in the first year or two because that taproot could be up to six foot tall by year three.
Chris: It's like pulling a tree out of the ground and if people out there don't quite understand it, you said you got your little plug. The difference between what we do and some of the other really cool propagators out there... What we do is we make a new plug, and I said a new root stock. This plant grows in a crown, a lot like asparagus. So when you cut it, it just grows more and it will continue to grow for up to 20 years. So you don't re-plant every year. The taproot digs down and the feeder roots go out and every year it sends out new receptors of feeders looking to eat, but it eats a lot. So broadcasting some good nutrient around the plant, like a nice slow-release fertilizer is a good idea. Composting is an ever better idea and then that's why we do cover crops, too, because we want to reintroduce nitrogen. We want to make sure we're getting the right balance of phosphate, potash and nitrogen because this plant needs nutrient more than most plants you'll ever grow, for sure.
Nicole: I know it's been really fun to watch them. I've planted a ton of new plants this year. A lot of fruiting shrubs and elderberries, some figs and mulberries and out of everything, the hops have just been my favorite. They've totally stolen my heart and it was fun to watch the... for me, the Amalia is the one that actually grew the best and I have them all kind of in the same general area. I figured I'd just try multiple varieties, but they each have their own leaf structure and their own little quirks about them, so they're all a little bit different and it's been really neat to watch them. And it's been great, because, like I mentioned, how hot it is here, I have them in raised beds, but they've been surprisingly tolerant of days that I might not have watered them.
Chris: And that's fine. Like I said, stressing the hop, we're always stressing our plants in the trial yard to find out how far you can push them and one of the cool things the plant will do is, it will tell you when it's too stressed, when you aren't feeding it enough. So as long as you know how to read the signs and it speaks its own language and I know it sounds kind of hoity-toity, but it's legit. Of any plant I've ever seen, every plant I've ever grown, the hop plant communicates with you and lets you know where it's at and what it needs. Sounds like yours are... You're doing really well, but they probably have the right environment and they're getting just the right thing. Whether you water them enough of not, remember, you probably have some decent subsoil and underneath that very dry topsoil, there's probably some moisture underneath and the plant will find it.
Nicole: Poorly, I guess, in most cases.
Chris: Well as long as that... If the clay is sitting at a depth that creates a basin, that could be good and bad for your plant. This is a plant that we like to water in the morning and we like to put it to bed at night dry. Kind of an old farmer term is, "It doesn't want to have wet feet." So we find that it can be a blessing and a curse that if it stays too wet, then you get root rot and the crown can dry rot and rot out. So that's not healthy for it. So it's almost better to let them dry down more than to over water them. And our owner has 101 amazing things that he likes to say that are his cliches and one of them is "Don't pet the puppy too much." And basically saying if you keep petting the puppy too much you're going to pet all of its hair off and that's what we tell the farmers all the time, is "Sometimes you've just got to stop petting your puppy and just let it grow."
Nicole: Sure. So in my case, I got lucky to find the Neomexicanas and you mentioned that most hops are more adapted for the northern more mild climates... variety out there that would be suitable for anybody's own micro-climate?
Chris: I think it's doable, yes. Micro-climate, that's almost a bigger term, because one of the hot terms out in the hop world right now is called terroir. Terroir is talking about the soil studies. So not only, like you had mentioned, clay, or the ideal would be a nice loamy sandy soil, but regionally the hop plant recognizes and works off of what's going on around it. Let me just give you a for example, is we had some North American standard, the 3 C hops. So Cascade, Centennial are a couple of them, but we had Cascade that was at a grower in the southern Midwest, so right near the Mason-Dixon Line. So their spring started much earlier than the standard plant would expect. So a normal plant would start rising up out of the ground around April. You begin looking at the plant for cutting the shoots and creating the ones that will climb in May and by June, you've trained your plant.
Chris: Well, these were trainable by early May and then in June, this area, which was in southern Ohio, they began to see these really strange weather patterns where it was super sunny in the middle of the day but it was really cloudy in the morning and really cloudy at night. And this plant, what it does is it grows up all the way to the summer solstice and then as soon as the plant recognizes that the day begins to get shorter, it grows out and it grows these side arms. And it's in those side arms that it grows the cones. Well the fact that the beginning of June, this region started to see these cloudy mornings and cloudy nights, the plant identified it that, "Hey, this whole crop thinks that it's the solstice. Let's start growing outward." But they were only about 10 foot tall at that time.
Chris: So regionally, it's important, too, is how much sun do you get? What's the length of your season that you're able to grow with? Because we do have hops that are growing in greenhouses in Austin, Texas, for example, at this cool little place called the Hopdashery, and they are doing greenhouse growing and they are growing early season, which is March until July, they're harvesting and they're doing it again. So July to October and getting two harvests out because the plant's confused and it thinks it has two seasons. So is there a hop for the region? Sure, I think that there's one for each region, but it's also particular to the soil. It's particular to what particular climate you see in that region. Because we all know that there's different climates within each of our regions. I mean, Colorado's a great example of that, right?
Chris: So I guess it would have to be like really narrow it down and it's also about the grower. Are you an attentive grower that spends a lot of time with your hops or are you somebody that wants to put it in the dirt and walk away? But I think yeah, I think you can find a hop that could fit in most regions, but there's just some places that... For example, we haven't figured out how to grow a good lemon tree here in Michigan. So I think that maybe we shouldn't be growing hops in Key West. You know what I mean?
Chris: But that's 2019 talking. I bet you by 2025 everybody's going to be growing everywhere. In fact, I just saw some communications coming through from a place in Brazil who is talking about doing growing and they're really excited about hops and they really want to create a hop market in that part of South America. So more power to them, right? But yeah, I think that at this point it's about... You try it out. You try a couple of different plants. You make a little trial yard and see what grows and see what doesn't and then find out. It's kind of like a puppy, back to that dog metaphor. Find the right dog for you. You looking for a little lap dog or are you looking for a big guard dog?
Nicole: Sure. To each their own.
Chris: Yeah. Absolutely. And it's one thing to grow... to do it as a hobby, like you're doing, is really cool. And you had mentioned that it's good for the animals. It could be good for you too, because it does have those microbial qualities. By going out to your cones and opening that flower up and rubbing it and smelling it, you're actually inhaling those microbials and it's not a proven statistic, but we hop farmers think that we might be healthier than other people because we smell so many hops.
Nicole: Well I can attest that they don't taste good because I was dared to eat one and it tasted like a fermented pine tree. Wasn't-
Chris: Oh, it's so bitter.
Nicole: Yes, it's terrible.
Chris: I agree. I agree and trust me, we've tried to make tea with it. My wife, I literally... We held a employee appreciation and what we call... We made a new term up. We called it a beer-luck. So instead of a potluck, it's a beer-luck. So I should have copywritten it before I said it on a podcast, but we did a beer-luck and my wife was with me doing tours of the hop yard with the people and I look over and she is literally putting the whole cone in her mouth. Just to see if she can get that flavor and taste and it didn't seem to bug her, but I tell you, I'm around hops 24/7 and I'm never putting a whole cone in my mouth ever again. I've done it before and I'm good. They definitely are very bitter-
Nicole: They are.
Chris: ...to the palate.
Chris: For sure. Yep.
Chris: They don't taste like they smell.
Nicole: That is the absolutely truth. So we kind of talked about some of the aspects of growing hops so that if somebody wanted to give this a go on their land. So we kind of talked about loamy soil would be kind of a better choice, and then of course the lighting. We want as much light as possible, no cloudy days and then you said a long-release fertilizer. But you mentioned that they grow vertically. So what's the best way to support them as they grow?
Chris: Well the term is a trellis, but there's... When I'm talking to new farmers, to help them understand what they're about to get into, whether you're a hobby farm that wants to put three plants in, or you're a large farm that wants to start with 2000, which is only two acres. We would say... and I always love to tell people, "It's a lot like making potato salad. There's a lot of ways to do it." The plant wants to grow upward, so you can start with a lot of ways. If you've got a nice high peak on your house or your barn or your shed, you could run an eye loop up to it and then tie your coir. And a coir often used to help hops grow is made from coconut fiber. It's not super easy to source if you don't have a hop yard nearby, but if you can contact a hop yard that's doing a larger scale, anything more than five or 10 acres, they often have coir available, but nowadays online you can find this product.
Nicole: From Lowe's is where I found mine.
Chris: There you go. What I wouldn't use is, I wouldn't use baler twine. So a baler twin is such a fibrous material that breaks down, that it can break right where the ground meets the twine. So what we're speaking of, to help the listener understand, is that the plant is a baby and every spring what you do is you tie a string about 18 foot in the air and you bring it all the way to the ground and you sink it into the ground, that string, which we call the coir. Then once the plant has grown, like asparagus, a crown that gives you bines, which is like a vine but with a B, grows bines that you can, what we call, train. And to train a plant, you have to show it what to do. And what you do is you show it the string you want it to climb on and you go counter-clockwise, you begin to train it. Once you've started training it, like you said, you can literally put a clothespin where it was when you leave at night and come back the next day and it's a foot taller. It's amazing to watch.
Chris: But it needs to have something that can stay in the ground and that's why that coconut fiber works really well. What kind of fiber did you find? What did you decide to use?
Nicole: I actually was able to find a nice thick coconut coir.
Chris: Awesome, awesome.
Nicole: Yeah, I felt lucky
Chris: You have a cool Lowe's.
Nicole: Yeah. It wasn't cheap but it was worthwhile.
Chris: Sure, and you know what? If you find a few other people that want to do it with you, you can go online and find a bundle and just do a cooperative where you buy together and you'll get a better deal. And there's other people that are challenging it because it is like making potato salad and there's so many ways to do it. There's a really cool company that started up here in Michigan, Michigan Hop Products, and what they're doing is... Imagine the paper bag that you go shopping with. Let's say you go to Starbucks and they give you... You go buy a new tumbler mug or a pound of coffee and the bag you get has little paper handles on it. Are you familiar with those handles?
Chris: They figured out how to make those 20 foot long and were tying hops to that. So it's 100% biodegradable. It works. It has its challenges but it's a work in progress. The challenges are not insurmountable because it's totally usable and it's just important that you put the right vine on it at the right time. Another cool product. We've even used vinyl and tied it to it, but that seems to be a little less capable for the plant to grab to because it needs something that's got a little texture to it, if you will.
Nicole: So you mentioned 2000 plants for just two acres. So do you normally just select one bine or how many do you allow to grow per plant?
Chris: Well the first few shoots that come out of the ground, we like to call the boll shoot. Often a boll shoot is... It's the first one up. It looks like the one you want to train because it's so big. You'll know a boll shoot right away because it does come up very fast. It can be as big as a pencil or a pen in its circumference, but when you cut it, you'll find that it actually is hollow in the center because it's growing so fast, it's hollow down the center. And that can happen with non boll shoots too, but we like to cut those first to let the secondary shoots come up and I'd say between two and four bines per string is a good way to go because you'll get some weight. The cones and the foliage and the bine, it all gets kind of heavy and you want to make sure that you're not overloading it, plus you want to make sure that the foliage and the cones are going to get the sun they need. So two per string, and generally in a crown, we'll put two strings in a crown. So you'll see four to six, even maybe sometimes eight bines climbing per crown or per plant in a large yard.
Nicole: When fall comes around, do you trim those back or do you just leave the plant alone?
Chris: Well, when we harvest, we first cut it a good foot, foot and a half above the ground. So we cut the bottom. That gets cut first and then when we go through the hop yard, we cut the top and lay it down. Then it goes into a harvester, which is a picker, and the picker is a modern-day invention that changed what we do. It wasn't even until 1922 that had even our first-ever modern-day picker.
Chris: And the picker helps to pop those cones off, but if you're doing this at home, I would suggest cut the top and then pull it nice and taut, cut the bottom. Leave about a foot, foot and a half to kind of hang out there. Then right before winter, then you can take it down about four to six inches. It's just super important that you want to clean the plant around the soil and about a foot to two between the soil and where the foliage begins. And even if you're doing what you're doing, cleaning it by hand is going to help to fight against things like powdery mildew. You want to let it be nice and arid down at the base and so that's one of the reasons that we cut it higher first. We let that kind of dry down and then we do what we call crowning, where we go through and we clean it right down to the top of the plant. And then in the spring, we actually come in right at the edge of the soil and the plant itself and we clean that off and then we roll fresh dirt on top.
Chris: That's for twofold. One, it gives you nice fresh shoots to pop up and it also is a preventative for fighting against any kind of issues you might have with the bacteria and such.
Nicole: I guess I just assumed that you would pluck the hops off, as if it was a cherry tree or something similar. I guess I didn't think about machinery, but I'm sure that makes it much easier.
Chris: Yeah, the small of the big, if you will. The largest yards that are 10 acres or more, their smallest pickers are... They'll pick about 170 plants an hour.
Nicole: Oh my goodness.
Chris: But that's nothing compared to those that can do half-acre to an acre an hour. And an acres can be a lot of different things. As little as 800 plants up to 1200 plants can fit on an acre, depends on how you space them between each other. But for your situation, you could leave those bines and all they'll do is dry and, like I said, they'll dry hard and they'll become part of the structure that you're creating and probably create more shade but I would definitely go through and remove... The foliage and stuff is going to fall off, but that's... If you leave it all up and it sits over winter and it rots, that can cause issues, like I said, there's always issues with any plant material that it could possibly get some mildew or sporozoa. So that's why we like to cut it down and let it grow again.
Nicole: One of the fantastic things about where I live is it's always windy so you never have to worry about raking up leaves or anything. They just blow away.
Chris: Perfect. So it sounds like you could, year after year, train it in a different way and maybe after five years or so, you might have a complete structure made of hop bines. The way it'll really harden, though, is I still would snip it at the bottom so that it stops feeding the plant and then the plant dries down.
Nicole: Oh, okay.
Chris: And I mean, I'm sure you have bines that are probably somewhere between the size of a cocktail straw and a Sharpie, right?
Nicole: Oh, yes. Yeah.
Chris: They're awesome and so you can do a lot of cool things with them but if they're helping to create a structure, then by all means. And for the other growers that want to do it in their back yard... A friend of mine, he's putting up a flagpole next year and he's going to treat it just like a flagpole, where he ties everything to that place that you would tie the top of a flag and he's going to raise it up and raise the strings right up and do like a tepee. So that's been done for years, where the plant has one pole in the middle and then they just pull plants up from maybe eight foot out, all the way around it and it creates this really cool tepee effect. And I've seen people do it where they've done it like a clothesline, that at the end of the season, since they can't reach 18 foot, they just have it on little mechanisms that they can lower it and get it down to a height that they can deal with it.
Chris: And, in fact, in the Old World, two things would be done. They would either have them grow on shorter trellises, so they could still reach them and just keep pruning them and cut them at a lower level or they would walk around on these crazy big stilts. And if you have not looked that up, Google Old World hop farming and take a look at the stilts these people used to run around hop fields on. It is absolutely amazing.
Nicole: Well I know what I'm doing after this. Drinking a beer and watching stilt hop videos.
Chris: It's a good idea.
Nicole: And you also... I know when we talked earlier, you mentioned that maybe more recently in the old days that they would grow them on their barns and then they would make their own seasonal beer.
Chris: That's accurate. One of the newest trends in beer-making right now is everybody wants the sours. Sour beers. Sour beers and farmhouse beers are trending really heavy. A farmhouse beer is one of the oldest ways of making beer because it's being stored in a way that during the day, in a barn, it could get up to, what, 105 degrees? 95 degrees, 90 degrees, right?
Nicole: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Chris: And then in the evening, on a farm, it can get down to 50 degrees. So during the fermentation process, they're raising and lowering the temperature while the yeast is doing its job to ferment. And in those old days, it was just known that many farmers would brew their own beer and create their own stash, basically, for the year. That they would have a harvest fest beer, that's where that came from, "We're going to make a beer with the fresh crops that come off of our own crop." But some of the hops we found here in Michigan, for those that are maybe unfamiliar... Our demographic is very strong Dutch-German. If phone books still existed, and I think they might, but if they still existed we'd have a lot of Vs and Ws in ours. So being Old World Dutch-German lineage here in Michigan, we had quite a few people find out that they have this strange plant growing behind their barn. Generally hidden, because during Prohibition you weren't allowed to even have hops in your yard because it was considered to be used only for beer.
Chris: And we found out that these families, just like they had a family crest, they had a family hop. They had a strain of hop that was directly connected to their particular family lineage. And so we learned that many of our descendants did not come over with a bunch of luxurious items or wealth, but they had a brew kettle and a hop plant and everything they needed to produce... and maybe even a strain of yeast. That same strain of yeast would be used to make their breads as it would be to make their beer. And let's be honest, beer is just liquid bread. You know, water, yeast, there you go, and grain, you've got bread and beer.
Chris: So yeah, it's kind of a cool thing, but yeah, the idea that there were these hops that were never commercially grown or sold, I think is not unique to hops because I'm sure that this has existed in many vegetables and fruits throughout time.
Nicole: We went to the mountains a couple weeks ago and I stumbled upon a hop plant and I about lost my mind because we were just walking down this little creek bed to go fishing and I went, "Oh my gosh, look. It's a hop plant just growing out here in the middle of nowhere." And I did the eco-friendly thing and I left it, although there was part of me that wanted to try to bring it home with me. But I think that would be such a neat find, to come across one of those old varieties, like you said, behind a barn.
Nicole: Just the thought that they brought that over. I tried to bring home a plant on a plane once and it was a nightmare. I couldn't imagine emigrating with this plant and then that's just amazing to me.
Chris: Yeah, you know, actually, we thought it was so cool too, that we actually were able to get the rights to over 20 of those plants and their lineage from the people that found them on their land because we wanted to immigrate them into our breeding program. So, like I said before, we had over 500,000 seedlings that we created and then it took 10 years to narrow those down to the 400 plants that I study every year and then each year we break down to 100 of those plants that we then put in front of multiple brewers. We have 45 brewers that are all professional brewers that do the aroma sensories for us. And in that, there's a good 15-20 that the mother plant was actually one of those heritage. And so we got to thinking about four years ago, how cool would it be if we kept the lineage clean and made it available to a particular market and we did.
Chris: So if you go to our Great Lakes Hops website, you'll see that we have what we call our Heritage collection and we sell them specifically just to home brewers and growers like you. And like in there is one we called Arcadia. We have another one like Petoskey. These are cool plants. One thing you'll find about them is they grow so big and so robust that they could never go through a modern-day picker because they're just too big and one plant can yield over 10 pounds of actual hops, which is a pretty big deal. So yeah, if you ever want to try one, I would definitely give me a call and we'll take you on a tour of the Heritage collection and maybe see if we can find one that can grow in the desert region of Colorado.
Nicole: That would be amazing and I think that's so cool that you guys kept them clean, especially nowadays where everybody's pushing to make things unique. I think that's really admirable of you.
Chris: Well isn't that the world we're in now, where the hottest new trends are things like farm to table. Go to the best restaurant in our city and what they're doing is promoting this farm to table idea, which is easily one of the oldest ideas ever to exist. Nothing new about it, whatsoever, and I just think that we've gone 100% full circle and what is new is what was exactly what was always meant to be, which is what's old.
Nicole: Hopefully it's a longer lasting trend and not too fleeting.
Chris: Man, I hope so, and I don't think that it has a chance of falling off because the more we are conscious about what we put in our bodies, the more we're conscious about our environment and the more we're conscious about the future, I think we're making wiser choices. Seeing a younger generation do things like canning is so cool to see. My family was just pickling some of the radishes out of our hop yard. Like I said, we use different cover crop to help promote regeneration of nitrogen, phosphate, potash. So we planted kale and radishes and buckwheat just to let them break down in the yard. But how do you sit and look at this radish and not think, "I could do something with that." So we pickled them and I tell you, I didn't think pickling was something I could ever do and if you Google it, it is not that hard. And it's actually really cool to do.
Chris: So I think that it's not just trendy, it's something that once people have that aha moment and realize that they too can do it... I'm not trying to stop people from going out and supporting their local grocery, but there's a lot of things we can do at home and be more self-reliant, for sure.
Nicole: Absolutely. So one thing I just wanted to pick your brain about here is pest management. You mentioned when we kind of pre-conferenced about this, that when the plant flowers that it would tend to attract a lot of critters. Something I have not experienced yet, but what recommendations do you have for that and what are some of the main pests that threaten the hops plant.
Chris: Well the hop plant has three primaries that are the main predators, if you will. Spider mites are a big one. Mites... There's a whole reason that we have a class of pesticide called a miticide, and you even mentioned how mites can attack bees. The spider mite is one that is very hard to beat but there are ways to beat it holistically and there's ways to beat it with chemicals. If you're a back yard farmer, some of the simple ways is using even things like a dish soap. Like a regular Dawn dish soap and dilute it a bit in some water, spray it on your plants and it creates a film that will basically suffocate the spider mite, to be nice. The Japanese beetle is a big one here in the upper Midwest, which I don't know if it even exists where you're at, but-
Nicole: It is, it does.
Nicole: It's a problem.
Chris: It's a problem and the Japanese beetle, it's attracted to the plant. It loves the smell of the plant. It will demolish and it will, what we call, skeletize your foliage in a very quick way. One of the only real holistic ways to battle it. One is going to be the neem oil, which is a extract oil. There we are, back on oils. And you have to just... It's a preventative, it cannot kill them as much as it can control them, but it's one of those things where I would say you definitely don't want to put up those little bag traps. That's just basically inviting them. That's saying, "Hey, by the way, we've got a party going on over here. Come on over." Because it's releasing pheromones. And then the last one is going to be loopers or leafhoppers and honestly, the best way to control all of them is a regular schedule and we do, in the commercial hop world, to be able to get the yields needed to be able to keep beer affordable, we do use a variety of chemicals but in a very safe way, when you really look at it.
Chris: I mean, we're not talking about... These are chemicals that can be sprayed without even wearing gloves, masks. They don't have those kinds of warnings, if you will, but some can be pretty bad. We're pretty proud that a lot of the chemicals we may use in the hop world aren't quite what you see. And if you think that the apple you eat is clean, if you don't see the bite of an insect on it, that's not a clean apple. I hate to break it. So if you can handle a bug in your apple, then by all means, and honestly, it's... You know our conversation earlier, I had said, it's ironic because we try to feed our children in my house as many clean, organic things as we possibly can, but yet I work with chemicals every day. It's funny because to be a grower is sometimes to be a killer, too.
Chris: So one last thing that can work against that Jap beetle for you is milky spore. That takes years to work, but the milky spore is something you can put in the ground and it's still a killer, but what it does is, they eat the milky spore because they're a grub at first. Their first gestation in life is a grub. They'll eat that and then they'll actually become the milky spore themselves and after a three, four year process of applying it over and over and over again, and it gets very expensive. You can actually kind of eliminate that crowd.
Chris: My real answer to you is if you have these pests, look around your property. If you have quite a few spider mites, there's also host plants, probably somewhere in your property. Probably upwind from your crop. We found wild grapes growing on our oak trees on the 40 acres that we have for our hop yard and that's where the Japanese beetles were living. Rose hips is one that Japanese beetles, for example, really love. So take away the host and you kind of take away the problem a little bit too.
Chris: But there's always alternatives, but definitely looking into things like neem oil. It's usable, I think it's preventative more than it is a solution.
Nicole: Well, and being somebody like myself, who's purely just growing it, realistically, I'd say, ornamental, because it's for the shade and stuff. If I lose some of the plant or I don't have it harvest that doesn't really matter to me. So it just kind of depends, I would think, on each individual, what their intent is with the plant or what their end goal is.
Chris: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Absolutely and that's, I think, when you do. I mean, if I'm growing a few tomatoes in my back yard, I want to do it in the cleanest way possible.
Chris: If I can. And so I think that that's absolutely doable. But it is and the more aromatic of a hop you get, with the oils being released and the acids themselves can be very deterring to the pests, but the oils then draw them back in, for sure.
Nicole: So for those that were interested in learning more about growing hops or maybe they wanted to add crops to their own farm, where they can find more about Great Lakes Hops?
Chris: Greatlakeshops.com. We are a grassroots family-owned and run company. We're really making an influence throughout the world and North America. It may look like we're just a really big company when you see us on an online presence and the amount of different farms and breweries that we have contact with, but really we're only just a small group of people that are primarily all in the same family. Just trying to do our part and that means influencing the craft world, influencing the agricultural industries here in the Midwest and doing it in a way by trying to provide high quality material that is otherwise not accessible to smaller growers. Because I think a lot of people don't realize out there that if you wanted to grow, say, a Gala apple, you've got to go get permission if you want to go get that particular apple strand that you're going after because it's protected.
Chris: Depending on what apple. I don't know for certain if it's the Gala. A big one here is the, what is it? The Honeycrisp. I'm pretty sure you can't just go buy a regular Honeycrisp tree. They have kind of the stripped down domestic version you can get. Yeah, but a lot of the plant material these days, it's hard because they're not readily available to a smaller grower who just wants to help provide something locally. And if you want to email me directly, that would be [email protected] If you go on our website, it's super informative. We don't just broker and sell hops. We actually have entire documentation that is about what it means to become a hop farmer. What it would take, a lot of the challenges that you may be up against. Networking amongst farmers and we are just an email away. Literally just email me. And I think you found that we're highly responsive.
Chris: We're definitely trying to build this company in a grassroots way, so it's little conversations like this every day all day. I'm literally leaving this conversation and heading over to the IPA Challenge of Grand Rapids. Yeah, so if you have questions or want to talk about hops, we also have some amazing growers all throughout the state of Michigan and the surrounding areas that we'll direct you to if you want to grow on a commercial level. And if you want to come out and take a tour, we do tours of our facility all the time and my primary job is to do hop aroma sensories. So if you find yourself in the area and you want to stop by we can arrange a sensory for you to check us out.
Nicole: Awesome. I know that when I first started growing these, I had a couple questions and you guys have been so great about returning my emails very quickly and friendly and lots of information. So I definitely love what you guys are doing and I highly recommend if anybody wants to look at hops, I'd definitely check out Great Lakes Hops, amazing company.
Chris: Awesome. Thank you very much and I appreciate your time. Thank you for what you do, promoting everybody like myself that we're just out there trying to spread the word and do cool things in our backyards and in our hoppy farms and in our farms. Appreciate you.
Nicole: Of course, and thank you so much, Chris. I appreciate you sharing your time and your knowledge with us today.
Chris: Absolutely, and cheers.
Nicole: And for those of you at home, thank you for listening to Backyard Bounty and we'll see you again next week.
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