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Something brewing

June 25, 2012


A better brew 300x225

U of M hops researcher Charlie Rohwer holds a hop cone at the Southern Research and Outreach Center in Waseca, Minnesota.
Photo by Patrick O'Leary.

By Adam Overland

Could the University of Minnesota do for hop farming and the craft beer brewing industry what it has done for cold-hardy grapes and winemaking in Minnesota?

If horticultural science professor Vince Fritz and research associate Charlie Rohwer have anything to say about it, 30 years from now the hop industry in Minnesota and the Midwest might just be, well…hopping.

Hops, key and common ingredients in most beers today, act as a preservative, and also add bitterness to help balance the sweet flavor of the malt in beer.

"Otherwise, beer would taste kind of like a not-fruity wine cooler," says Rohwer, a 2008 U of M Ph.D. in applied plant sciences. "It also adds another layer of complexity and aroma to the beer," he says.

That aroma is in the breeze at the U's Southern Research and Outreach Center (SROC) in Waseca, MN—one of two locations where the U is growing a quarter acre of hops, identifying which varieties will grow best in Minnesota and what kind of trellis system they will thrive on. Hops grow as vines, and here they grow in rows spaced apart about the width of a hallway, in thickening corridors rising ever upward. This Jack and the Beanstalk quality is one of the aspects so fascinating to Rohwer.

"Hops grow up a trellis that's 20 feet tall—nothing else does that," he says. And indeed, they may be limited only by the challenges of the support structure on which they climb. Ask any grower—driving 25-foot poles into the ground for stringing hops every year and harvesting them several months later isn't an easy task, especially without the proper, and often expensive, equipment.

So Rohwer is experimenting with 10- and 16-foot trellises made of permanent polypropylene mesh, which would simplify trellis installation and maintenance, scouting and pest/disease control, and harvesting.

Should the U's research prove successful, Minnesota and the Midwest could someday sustain its burgeoning craft brewing industry with locally grown hops. Rohwer says that the end goal could be exactly what the Minnesota craft brewing industry needs.

"There's a lot of interest in growing hops for local craft beers—but there's not a lot of research going on—there is a gap in knowledge," says Rohwer. "We're filling the knowledge gap."

A down economy?
If the economy at large has been in a recession, the craft brewing industry hasn't noticed. Craft beer production grew by 13 percent in 2011, which for the first time surpassed 5 percent of the U.S. beer market in volume, according to the American Brewers Association. Retail sales were nearly 15 percent (a record $8.7 billion) of the $95 billion U.S. beer market. Hundreds of breweries are opening every year in the United States, and Minnesota is 26th in the nation (and rising) in breweries per capita. But the number of Minnesota grown hops that go into that beer? Virtually zero.

Yielding barley

It's not beer without barley—and Gary Muehlbauer, head of Plant Biology and professor in the Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics, is part of a nationwide project to overcome disease and increase the efficiency of barley breeding by sharing genomic data across several breeding programs.

Locally grown
At two acres, the hops farm at Brau Brothers Brewery in Lucan, Minnesota, is perhaps the biggest hopyard in the state. The owners grow their own hops and they brew their own beer, and that's something owner and operations manager Dustin Brau would like to see more of.

"It's such a crop conducive to the upper Midwest that it's a complete shame that we don't have any industrial hop growing," says Brau.

Indeed, Wisconsin was a huge producer of hops in the late 1800s—Milwaukee didn't become "the beer capital of the world" without cause. But disease and other factors contributed to the decline of hops.

Fritz believes it doesn't have to be this way. "The diversity that this could potentially represent in the agricultural landscape of the upper Midwest—the return of hops production, albeit on a smaller scale, and its place in this newly emerging and rapidly growing agribusiness area—that's the potential here," says Fritz.

Public research
So why does the U do this research? The answer lies in an interesting but often overlooked aspect of the public research university. Clearly, it's not that the U of M will be brewing its own brand of beer anytime soon. Researchers are interested in the basics of research here, and will leave it to private industry to apply the knowledge gleaned from experimentation.

Fritz says it's no different from how the U has supported agriculture throughout its history.

"We support any aspect of agriculture that has a real need for research-based information to strengthen that sector of the ag industry—it's no different than if you're working with corn or soybean growers—it's all for private sale, but hop growers and small scale breweries represent a new and emerging sector of the agriculture industry in this state. It's important that we begin to support that industry."

Tags: College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences, Extension

Related Links

U of M Hops Research

Southern Research and Outreach Center

Vince Fritz bio

Charlie Rohwer bio

Gary Muehlbauer bio