The grow-your-own movement now extends to hops, as a worldwide shortage has prompted home brewers to add a new crop to their gardens.
The Willamette vine made it; the other two croaked. His fiancée ran over the Nugget with the lawn mower, and "the Centennial, I found out, had been planted on top of an ant mound," said David Toews of Minneapolis. Such are the pitfalls of a new gardening project.
So, are we talking heirloom tomatoes? Exotic melons? Actually, this is another type of vine providing something that won't be found at any farmers' market.
Home brewers throughout the Twin Cities have been busily planting the rhizomes (root stock) that produce the vines (ants and other critters permitting) that spawn the cone-like flowers that make beer, well ... beer. Sales are hopping because a worldwide shortage has caused prices of the dried flowers or pellets to soar.
"It was amazing. This spring, we sold a ton of rhizomes, probably six or seven times as many as we sold in other years," said Pete Mack of Midwest Homebrewing Supplies in St. Louis Park. "We ordered a lot more, and we still had trouble keeping up [with demand]."
Mega-breweries such as Anheuser-Busch were protected from the shortage and price hikes because they have futures contracts with hops farmers. But for the increasingly popular "craft breweries" such as Summit and Surly, prices have risen from $3 per pound to as much as $20. That's part of the reason consumers have been paying more lately for craft beers.
For home brewers, hops prices ballooned from $1 to $2 per ounce a year ago to $3 to $8, said Curt Stock, who works at Northern Brewer supply company and grows his own hops at his home in St. Paul's Como neighborhood.
"I just made a double IPA [India Pale Ale], a 10-gallon batch," Stock said, "and put about $60 worth of hops in there. It's tough, but it's still better than going out and paying $9 for a 22-ounce double IPA."
In that context, a rhizone that costs about $3, and that within a few years can provide up to 4 pounds of hops per vine clump, is an idea well worth tapping into. Especially for those who find no substitute for a homemade brew.
India Pale Ales have two to three times as much hops as a stout or porter, while wheat beers require virtually no hops. In making his IPA, Stock was able to use some of his homegrown Cascade -- one of dozens of sub-species of hops -- but newer growers will have to be patient, as it takes at least two years for the vines to produce a decent hops crop.
"I'm not counting on anything this year, and actually, I'll be lucky if I can get any next year," said Dan Peters of Minneapolis, who planted three rhizomes in his Prospect Park yard this spring. "I'm hopeful but not counting on it for my brewing program next year."
Peters decided to commit to growing hops after buying 5 pounds last December at inflated prices, "but before they went up stratospherically. I don't expect I'll be able to buy 5 pounds this year."
Peters and Toews are far from alone among first-year growers, who are almost invariably home brewers (a fast-growing coterie that is approaching 1 million nationally, according to the Home Wine & Beer Trade Association). Even Dan Justesen, who as owner of Vine Park Brewing Company in St. Paul has access to hops at wholesale prices, just put in some plants.
The shortage came to a head last July, but actually was spawned by an imperfect storm of events in 2006. Heavy rains decimated the European crop, a severe drought had a similar effect in Australia, and a fire in a Yakima, Wash., warehouse destroyed 2 million pounds of hops. At least 75 percent of hops are grown in Washington.
With supplies way down and demand steadily rising, even small breweries scurried to find a source for the essential ingredient. "This year, local breweries were buying hops from us for the first time," said Juno Choi, retail manager at Northern Brewer. "Prices had been flat before that for years."
Now the price increases have prompted not only home brewers but commercial growers to plant vines. According to the International Hop Growers Bureau, hops acreage increased by 11,456 acres this year worldwide and by 8,500 acres in the United States.
And that doesn't include the home brewers' back yards, where the low-maintenance vines are climbing walls, trellises and fences. "I just prune throughout the summer," said Stock, "although you can come away with some pretty bloody arms pruning them."
The vines require more vertical space than ground coverage. They're susceptible to hail, the occasional animal ("something has been nipping the shoots off my vines," Peters reported), nearby street lamps providing too much light and the occasional wayward mower.
When they're harvested in the fall, there is only one concern: It's impossible to gauge the homegrown hops' alpha acid percentage, which determines a beer's bitterness.
"You can send it to a lab," Peters said, "but that's outside the realm of what I want to do. I mean, you're making beer, how bad can it be?"
Bill Ward • 612-673-7643