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Friday, March 6, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 26.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Blaska's Blog is microbrewed with the kiss of the hops
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Credit:David Blaska

As children in the 1950s, we suggested to mother that we should leave a glass of milk and cookies for Santa Claus. She suggested that Santa would better appreciate a bottle of Schlitz beer.

"The same kind dad likes," we kids marveled.

They were still making Fauerbach in Madison, Potosi, Chief Oshkosh, People's, Walters, and Rhinelander beers in those days. The big boys were Blatz, Gettelman, Heileman's Old Style, Hamm's (the beer refreshing), Miller High Life, and Schlitz, brewed with "just the kiss of the hops."

Grandfather grew prized barley for Pabst Blue Ribbon, threshed with a steam-driven threshing machine.

When most of the big brew houses gave way to consolidation, up came the craft brews to replace them and many of the small brands were revived. Some of the new crafts emphasize they are brewed with Wisconsin-grown barley. So, why not Wisconsin-grown hops?

Situated on a hillside a few miles northeast of Cottage Grove are what, at first glance, looks like a vineyard. In fact, those two acres have been planted this spring in hops, a key ingredient in beer. Hops act as a preservative as well as adding bitterness and aroma. Lagers are relatively low in hops; pilseners are higher, and IPA beers (India Pale Ale) are the hoppiest. (And people who drink them are the happiest. Sorry.)

My cousin John Blaska is growing them as part of a small member cooperative, the Wisconsin Hop Exchange. (Here's their website.) Daniel Schey of Waterloo is co-op president.

"I like beer and I feel like I can grow anything," John told me over a craft brew at his golf course, The Oaks.

John has grown beets, peas, soybeans (he once chaired the American Soybean Association's International Promotion Committee), lupine for oil, and amaranth.

Three varieties of hops are planted here: Sterling, Mt. Hood, and Willamette -- reflecting their origin in the state of Oregon (with Idaho and Washington, the major hop-growing states.) Hops like hillsides; they don't want their feet wet. However, they must be irrigated. The hops here are planted in rows 14 feet apart, each plant 3.5 feet apart and mulched with the granular material left from digested manure. The vines will climb strings suspended from trellises clockwise -- eventually 18 to 25 feet high.

When mature in three years, these vines -- all female -- will produce green, papery flowers the size and rough shape of pine cones (about 1 to 4 inches in length) but not nearly as heavy. John expects to get 2,000 pounds per acre -- a lot of hops considering how fluffy light they are. Four thousand pounds is enough to make 8,000 barrels of beer at 31 gallons to the barrel. The hops will be harvested mechanically by a machine Schey has rigged up.

John brought up an aerial view map on his iPad. Not far from here is an old farmstead where hops still grow wild, a remnant of the hops craze of the 1860s, centered around Wisconsin Dells (then known as Kilbourn City). Aphids hit the Wisconsin crop in the 1870s and dairying began to take over.

Agriculture today has more tools to combat crop disease, including more resistant varieties. Still, John thinks the feral hops nearby may have bred their own resistance, having survived the worst of the hops blight so long ago. Who knows, it could have evolved into an indigenous Wisconsin variety.

Gorst Valley Hops based in Mazomanie is also helping Wisconsin brew locally. It just got licensed to process hops -- the first such facility in the Midwest. (That story.)

What'll you have?

And don't get Frank Booth started on that Dutch beer.

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