Coloradans love their beer — especially when it’s brewed in the state using crisp Rocky Mountain water and fresh local ingredients. So in 2010 when AC Golden Brewing Co., the craft arm of MillerCoors, put out a call for locals to help the company grow hops for its Colorado Native Lager, volunteers were quick to hop to it (pun intended) and plant themselves a garden. The way the program works is that AC Golden invests in the plants and mails them out to participants along with instructions on how to grow them. At the end of the season, the volunteers give whatever crop they yield back to the brewers to use in their beer. In the program’s first year, about 50 or 60 amateur gardeners got involved. Since then, the number of volunteers has ballooned year over year. Jeff Nickels, AC Golden’s head brewer, told Modern Farmer that in 2013, 750 volunteers signed up, yielding enough hops to brew 120 barrels — about 1 percent of the company’s yearly output. That may sound like small potatoes, but the Colorado Native Hops Grower program wasn’t exactly created to fulfill the company’s hops needs. It was built to promote the beer — which incidentally is the only lager brewed with 100 percent Colorado ingredients — while also showcasing a concerted effort to bring more hops crops to the state.
While the interest for locally produced hops is there, high entry costs and lack of knowledge has kept Colorado gardeners from trying to compete with states like Washington, Oregon and Idaho. According to Ron Godin, a hops specialist from Colorado State University, farmers would need to invest about $20,000 per acre and about three years to get a hops farm going. That’s a lot of time to be waiting to brew. In the meantime, AC Golden has brought in experts to help farmers get their hops crops hopping. But it’s not easy. Some crops have been unsuccessful, as the potential for pests, mold and mildew is high. If a crop is harvested, AC Golden is paying a premium for it. Colorado hops are selling for about $15 per pound, about five times the USDA’s reported average price in 2012.
Volunteers in the Hop Grower program have faced some of the same challenges, of course on a smaller scale. Participant K.C. Dunstan remembers his first harvest — eight hours of picking the cones led not only to raw and irritated skin due to the plant’s thorny nature and three ounces of product. Still, the volunteers enjoy contributing, even in a small part, to the local beer scene. “It’s really impressive to me that people like our company well enough and like our beer well enough to help us out and grow for us,” Nickel says. “If helping us means they enjoy it more, we are doing our job.”