Montana producers are fighting the odds to produce hops in the Treasure State’s unique climate. Despite usually thriving in warmer, wetter climates, hops production has gained momentum in Montana.
“The small number of local growers and huge number of breweries here make the risk worth it,” says Jake Teselle, cofounder of Crooked Yard Hops in Bozeman. “And a Montana hops farm can be profitable using only a few acres.”
Answering a Demand
Hops came to the state as a hobby crop, but have quickly become an emerging specialty crop for Montana. This is greatly due, as Teselle suggests, to the growing number of breweries across the state.
Montana is home to 82 licensed breweries, a significant increase from 10 in 2010. These breweries produce nearly 180,000 barrels of beer and contribute $417 million to the state economy each year.
“The brewing industry is just now getting back to where it was before Prohibition when every town had a small brewery,” says Doug Child, head brewer at MAP Brewing Company in Bozeman.
MAP Brewing opened its doors two years ago led by a group of native Montanans who had a desire to bring a unique brewery experience and excellent beers to southern Montana.
“We have all lived here for more than 20 years. We love where we live and have enjoyed the local breweries that already exist,” says Dash Rodman, part owner of MAP Brewing. “We decided to do something different than what was already here.”
Rodman and his cofounder, Patrick Kainz, built their brewery and taproom off the beaten path, with breathtaking mountain views.
Most importantly, they brought in Child, who has been in the brewing industry for 25 years, to develop and refine the beer recipes.
“We knew that we had a unique and beautiful spot, but the proof is in the beer,” Rodman says.
MAP Brewing sources some Montana-grown hops locally but also uses many designer hops that are trademarked and not available to all growers.
“We do like to use Montana- grown ingredients when we can,” Child says. “I would say that most people appreciate local products – the more local the better. Locally grown hops have a different character than the same hop varieties grown elsewhere, which has a lot of value to brewers.”
An Emerging Crop
The demand for local ingredients continues to grow each year, which should mean an increase in the hops industry in Montana.
“I constantly get emails from breweries asking for local hops,” Teselle says. “The idea of a 100 percent Montana-grown-hops beer is very exciting.”
Crooked Yard Hops currently operates about 13 acres of hops with 6 additional acres in the planning stages. Teselle sells his entire crop to Bridger Brewing in Bozeman, but will soon produce for Highlander Brewery in Missoula as well.
Further west in Stevensville, Ravalli Hops grows seven hops varieties on 6 acres including Cascade, Columbus, Chinook, Centennial, Mt. Hood, Neomexicanus and Brewer’s Gold.
Russ Johnson, owner of Ravalli Hops, says their location’s slightly milder climate poses less of a threat to their crops. “Hops do really well at our latitude and because the Bitterroot Valley does not have the harsh winters that other parts of Montana has, so the plants can survive easier here.”
Ravalli furnishes hops locally within the Bitterroot Valley, but has interest from brewers in Colorado and Idaho.
“With the expansion of the craft beer industry across the U.S., we’ve seen the demand for hops increase,” Johnson says. “There is a great desire for locally grown, locally made products and we hope to fill that void.”
Beyond the Breweries
As the hops industry moves into the future, Tom Britz, owner of Glacier Hops Ranch in Whitefish, advises growers to find a niche to be successful. Britz has a one-acre research plot with about 40 different varieties of hops currently being tested. He also works with two nearby affiliate growers giving him 15 acres in Flathead County.
Glacier Hops Ranch focuses on taking fresh hops and distilling them into essential oils.
“It’s a new category of product and brings with it a whole different set of challenges, but that is our niche,” Britz says. “I always advise small producers to find their own unique niche and dominate it.”