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Thursday, December 18, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 22.0° F  Overcast
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Co-ops for hops
Wisconsin brewers encourage local crops
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A year ago, Tyranena Brewery spent around $30,000 on hops. This year Rob Larson, the brewmaster and owner, says his bill for hops will approach $140,000.

Increasingly, "the small brewer needs a way to control supply and cost of hops and barley," says Jon Reynolds of BrewPlan Inc., a brewery consultant and one of the key organizers of the new Wisconsin Brewers Guild Cooperative. Six breweries - Lake Mills' Tyranena, Lakefront Brewery of Milwaukee, Sand Creek of Black River Falls, Central Waters of Amherst, Bull Falls of Wausau and South Shore Brewery of Ashland - have joined together to work with Wisconsin farmers to grow barley and hops for their beer.

Their agreement is not a formal written contract, but rather, the co-op works with farmers to estimate crop production costs and what the market prices are likely to be at harvest. "If the grain and hops that are grown meet processing requirements such as the content of moisture, protein (barley) and alpha acid (hops), then the brewers agree to take all of the product," Reynolds explains.

Reynolds, a former partner in City Brewery of La Crosse, would like to add members, find ways to reduce harvest and processing charges further by helping farmers purchase equipment and work with secondary processors such as maltsters.

Barley and hops are two of the most essential ingredients in beer, along with yeast and water. Hop prices have risen due to major crop failures in Europe; barley prices in part because of the rising prices for corn. These increases jeopardize small craft breweries especially.

Both hops and barley were major crops in Wisconsin in the 19th century. Hops never really rebounded in the state following pest infestations and a collapse in the hop market in the late 1860s. Barley fell from popularity as farmers here began to grow more profitable crops. Today, much of the barley is grown in North Dakota, Montana and Idaho. Hop production is predominantly in Washington, Oregon and Idaho.

Reynolds attended an organic farming conference last February and floated the idea of local producers working with nearby brewers. He found five farmers who were interested in growing hops and another three in barley. "The cooperative means [the ingredients] could be more readily available, at a more stable price, and grown locally - which is what consumers say they want," says Tyranena's Larson. (For instance, Capital Brewery's Island Wheat, made from grain grown on Door County's Washington Island, has quickly become a major seller.)

Hops can take three years to establish, so despite five growers planting around 35 acres, there were not enough flowers, or cones, for any local beer this year. The cooperative is working with growers to plant several different varieties of hops in organic and conventional growing conditions. Members hope this will pay off down the road. "I have a three-year contract with commercial hop suppliers, but any hops I can get from the co-op will help," adds a cautiously optimistic Larson.

Weather was a factor this year, reducing barley yields for most of the co-op's growers. But in Bayfield County, Eugene "Bo" Belanger of South Shore Brewery and a local farmer harvested over 65 tons of six-row Robust barley that will be transported to Thunder Bay for malting within the week. Belanger says as soon as the grain is malted and delivered to his Ashland brewery, he'll start using it: "We're damn close to making beer with locally grown barley. My silo is empty now!" He plans to use it in the next batch of his flagship Nut Brown Ale, which should find its way into many Madison beer stores within a couple of months.

"This helps farmers who are my neighbors," says Belanger. "Growing it here in my backyard, you can look across Chequamegon Bay and point to where the barley came from. This is how you live up to the title of brewmaster. It's more than just brewing - it's knowing what goes into your beer."

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