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Craft brewing is big business in Big Sky Country. Will hops production take root and flourish, too?
Route Fifty Roadmap is an ongoing series of dispatches from the semi-regular travels of the Route Fifty staff around the United States | PREVIOUSLY: Akaska, S.D.
MISSOULA, Mont. — It’s hard to avoid the growing footprint of craft brewing in Montana. It’s an important driver of small business activity in a state that only has about 1 million residents. According to 2015 data from the Brewers Association, Montana, with 49 craft breweries, had the fourth-highest number of craft breweries per every 100,000 adults 21 and older, following Colorado, Oregon and Vermont.
By the end of this year, there could be as many as 70 craft breweries in the Treasure State, the Missoulian reported earlier this month. The newspaper noted the expansive territory of local beer, pointing out that “even in Wibaux, Montana, population 400, people can drink beer brewed locally at Beaver Creek Brewery.”
Craft beer, not unexpectedly, is an integral part of the commercial landscape in the state’s largest cities, which offer multiple options to explore the various creations coming from local craft brewers.
In Missoula, for instance, you can enjoy local favorites at tap rooms for KettleHouse Brewing, Missoula Brewing, Big Sky Brewing, Bayern Brewing, Great Burn Brewing and Imagine Nation Brewing. Last week at a downtown bar where I sampled locally-sourced lamb, elk and bison meat, I also enjoyed a KettleHouse’s Double Haul IPA, which as Beer Advocate notes scores big with our hop-headed friends” with “Cascade hops for flavoring and finish” that “provide a mouthy cascade of hoppiness!”
So about all those hops.
As craft brewing continues to boom in Montana and elsewhere, there’s a supply-and-demand conundrum. Due to changing climate conditions and other factors, the amount of hops, a critical ingredient in the brewing process, is strained.
That squeezed hops market is impacting the brewing industry globally, but the situation is especially important for smaller craft breweries, which aren’t always able to absorb spikes in commodities prices. The result? Craft brewers have to pass those costs onto the consumer.
Most hops in the United States are grown in the Pacific Northwest, with Washington state farmers responsible for 70 percent of the nation’s production, according to 2015 statistics from the Moxee, Washington-based Hops Growers of America. Hops producers in Oregon and Idaho follow Washington state, with 15 percent and 10.9 percent of the market, respectively. Other states account for about 2 percent of hops production. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, total hop acreage for 2016 is up 17 percent over last year, 51,115 acres over 43,633 acres.
Montana has been boosting its hops production, too. Last week, foreign agriculture officials on a tour of the state, hosted by the USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service and the Montana Department of Agriculture, visited one of the few hops farms in the state as part of a series of beer-related stops.
Agricultural officials representing 18 countries tapped into several beer-related endeavors in the Flathead Valley, including a lunch stop at Tamarack Brewing Co. in Lakeside and a meeting with Flathead Valley Community College instructors involved in the college’s brewing curriculum.
While at the Scott Hop Farm on Monegan Road near Whitefish, foreign attachés walked through the rows of towering hop vines and smelled the fragrant aroma of the crop as Tom Britz of Glacier Hops Ranch sliced open a cone-shaped catkin.
Montana will have a really long way to go to catch up with its hop-growing neighbors in the Pacific Northwest. Michigan, which like Montana has a good climate for growing hops, is also seeing a hops-growing resurgence.
But while there’s a demand for more hops, getting into the hops-growing business is not easy, Briz told Alan McCormick, the co-creator of Missoula Craft Beer Week, in a Growler Fills blog post last year:
“Producing hops is a commitment. It requires specialized equipment and it is definitely not a casual endeavor. Just as you can’t be a small grain producer without access to a $250,000 combine, this crop has specialized requirements. It’s more like establishing a vineyard than planting an annual crop like barley or canola.”
And since that takes time, the hops-thirsty craft-brewing sector will have have to be patient. In the meantime, there’s always locally produced hard cider, which doesn’t require hops—though you can add them to create hopped cider. And if you’re in Bozeman, be sure to check out Lockhorn Cider House and its Flathead Cherry cider (pictured here).
Michael Grass is Executive Editor of Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Seattle.