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Matt Hall, brewmaster at Lift Bridge brewery in Stillwater, came across the Shetkas’ operation a few years ago and the two combined efforts to start “Pickin’ and Grinnin,’” an annual event where hundreds of people help pick the Shetka’s hops to create a fresh wet hop brew at Lift Bridge that is uncommonly fresh in Minnesota.
“Other people normally would have those hops shipped from Washington, Portland,” Hall said. “Here we have a chance to go up the street to help with Hippity Hop’s fresh, organic, local hops.”
“Pickin’ and Grinnin,’” held after the state fair in September, uses up to half of the Shetka’s annual yield and takes care of one of their most ominous chores — picking hops.
“Picking is tedious,” George said. “It’s worse than picking raspberries; it takes forever. There’s so many hops on one vine, [and you] have to pick them one at a time. You could never pay someone $10 an hour to pick hops and think you’ll make money. You won’t.”
Hall said he embraced the Shetkas’ farm not only to help the couple personally, but to further the movement of hops growers in the Midwest.
“It fits in our wheelhouse and our beliefs to support local,” Hall said. “But we also want to support a region that was at one time a producer of hops.”
‘If you build it, they will come’
Moving forward, the Shetkas are open to taking on help with their farming operation but also want to expand “The Top Hop” — the packaging and sales side of the business.
The couple has shipped Forest Lake hops as far as Australia, China and Japan and has recently begun importing a particular type of hops from the Czech Republic to sell to breweries in the United States.
The Shetkas aren’t sure if growing hops is a sustainable future for them personally, but they would like to use their infrastructure to help others get their operations off the ground.
“We’ve got the drying facility, the packaging — can do whole leaf, can’t do pellets,” George said. “Your average home brewer throws a couple plants in his back yard and has all these hops left over. We can buy those hops if you pick them and bring them to us. We’ll sell them for you.”
It’s more lucrative to ship hops around the world than to sell locally, but the Shetkas are committed to starting up Minnesota’s hops industry. That’s why they still sell two-thirds of their product in-state.
“If growers want to get into it, go find yourselves a brewery [to sell to],” Leah Shetka said. “It’s almost like ‘Field of Dreams.’ If you build it, they will come.”
Andrew Krammer is a Twin Cities freelance writer.