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A pitfall of being a gardener is overconfidence.  After triumphing over soil, weather, and a few insects, there’s a swagger to your walk; you find yourself smugly thinking you could master any plant your heart desires.  When you reach that point, there’s always one that calls your bluff. 

In my case, it’s hops, the essential element in beer.  A friend convinced me to put in two plants with a simple plan: grow hops, harvest them, and trade them to brewers for beer. 

The first season was an easy, no-brainer, I thought, since the vines with hand-shaped leaves stayed small and well behaved.  In the winter they died back, and I snipped off the spent vine and tucked in the roots for winter.

The second year, the hops settled in, crawling up the fence and spilling over the side.  “Must be why they call them Cascades,” I thought, “they’re cascading all over the neighbor’s yard.”  Pulling them back, I harvested the cones and offered them to home brewers.

Now in their third season, they’re showing their true nature: alarming.  Not content with climbing the fence, my hops grabbed the neighbor’s apple tree, vining up to cover the branches in an aromatic blanket.  Staring up at the harvest dangling 20 feet above my head, all I could think was “Houston, we have a problem.”

“They’re really vigorous; they’ll climb over anything. They’ll take over bushes, ornamental plants,” says Ali Hamm, Hops Specialist with Summit Plant Laboratories, Inc., in Fort Collins (plantlabs.com/).  “There are reports of them getting 50-feet tall, but in Colorado they’ll only get about 25 feet.”

Hamm spent four years on what many college students might consider a dream project: researching the best types of hops for our area at Colorado State University.  The high yielding plant shows promise for Colorado growers; warm days, cool nights, low humidity and few pests keep problems away.  Once established, hops are also drought tolerant.

The market for local hops looks strong.  “People in Colorado will always be drinking beer, and there will always be hops in it,” says Hamm, “I think it’s a great crop to be growing here, but I’m biased about it.”  She estimates the industry is two to five years from being established, mainly due to large up front costs of trellising and post harvest equipment.

Brewers are watching the fledgling industry closely, which currently has 75 acres in production.  “We used to get wet hops from Yakima Valley (Washington), but we want to use local hops for our beer,” says Ro Guenzel, Head Brewer for Left Hand Brewing Company in Longmont (lefthandbrewing.com/).  “They’re better, fresher, and we can visit the fields to select the rows that we want.”

Wet hops, unprocessed cones used within 12 hours of harvest, are expensive to ship by overnight express for brewing Left Hand’s Warrior beer.  Now Guenzel brings in his hops from Sunrise Farm in Paonia, which picks and packs the hops onto small airplanes for a quick trip over the mountains to Longmont. 

 “We can only make a wet hop beer once per year, when hops are picked.  Since they’re not dried, there’s no loss of volatile oils.  They provide a different character to the beer, it’s a little greener, brighter flavor,” he said.  Balancing malty sweetness with a touch of bitterness is not all hops do; each type brings its own flavor to the brew.  “Hops can be citrusy, piney, earthy – they’re all unique.”

Guenzel was happy to take the two bushels of hops harvested from my plants to add to the Warrior brew.  “Cascades are the most widely used, they’re the quintessential hop.”  But Hamm also recommends Chinook, Crystal, or Nugget for people who want a tried and true plant.  Then get to know your neighbor, taking them beer in exchange for their patience with your vine. 

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