Ag beginners find niche in Colorado’s expanding hops industry
October 16, 2013
When it comes to raising hops, Ron and Pamela Munger just happened to be in the right place at the right time and they jumped into the venture, even though neither had much agricultural knowledge.
"I read an article about it five years ago," Ron explained, "and it sounded like a good field to explore. My wife and I first planted some in our pasture south of Montrose and later, we bought 50 acres with 50 shares of water in nearby Olathe (Colo.) and started Misty Mountain Hops Farm.
"So far it's working really well."
One of the primary ingredients needed to brew beer (along with yeast, water and barley), hops are a relatively new crop on the West Slope that is not only labor-intensive, but requires specialized machinery for processing.
"We have a Wolf picker — named after the company that makes it — that was imported from Germany," he continued. "That country is actually the No. 1 hops growing place in the world, but America is second, with the biggest commercial growers located in Oregon, Idaho and the Yakima Valley area of Washington State."
Although it's in the infant stage, Colorado is also on the map, now thanks to research done on the craft-brewing industry by Colorado State University seven years ago.
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"Brewers like the fact that they can now use all Colorado-grown ingredients. Thirty breweries have been built this year alone. It's a really neat and exciting new thing," he added.
Basically, hops are what make beer taste like beer, and there are at least 30 different types and tastes. Hops are also what prevent beer from spoiling, makes it foamy, and acts like a filter to keep it clear.
According to Webster's dictionary, the actual plant is a "twining vine that is a member of the mulberry family and has 3-lobed or 5-lobed leaves and inconspicuous flowers, of which the pistillates are in glandular, cone-shaped catkins. Only the dried, ripe buds of the female hop flower are used in brewing, and their flavor descriptions range from spicy to woody to minty herbal to even evergreen."
Known to be fast-growing, it likes to be next to water and does best in moist climates with soil that is high in boron.
But, "in this area, ours need fertilizer with a lot of slow-release nitrogen," Ron noted. "Soil tests tell us what is lacking (boron, zinc, potassium) and we add whatever else is called for. During the high-growth periods the vines will add 8 to 12 inches per day while winding up ropes. They'll really suck up the nutrients and water during that time."
Although it appears hops is a crop that can practically grow on its own, "there's actually a lot to it. We had to construct an elaborate trellis system with a huge grid that consists of poles, cables and wires since the plants grow up to 18 feet high. In the spring, we are busy tying up the hops, and from mid-August through September, we are deep into the harvest, hiring additional workers to get the work done. The vines are cut down and hauled off in a trailer to be processed in the Wolf picker, which separates the cones and leaves from the hops. It's then dried, packed into 150-pound bales and shipped to a pelletizing facility. Once vacuum-sealed, the pellets (which look a bit like rabbit food) are placed in cold storage to be sold as brewers need it."
Misty Mountain offers a variety of hops, including Crystal, Nugget, Centennial, Cascade and Chinook, all of which are "proven to be virus and disease-free through a process used by Summit Plant Laboratories, Inc."
For Ron, who is a native of San Diego, Calif., "it's an awesome thing to be a part of the farming and brewing community" and even more satisfying to be settled in Colorado after going back and forth for so long.
A pipeline welder with over 30 years of experience, "I'd done pipeline jobs in the area and fell in love. I just knew I'd be parking here someday."
He also visited frequently to hunt and fish after his older sister moved over in the early 70s.
Pamela, who's a talented painter from San Clemente, Calif., helps out on the farm when she's not working for Community Options in Montrose, and Ron's brother, Robert, does the marketing. Ron created the Misty Mountain Hops logo, as well as the website, http://www.mmhopfarm.com.
Ron and Pam's son-in-law, Cody Phillips, has also "jumped on board full-on, and is practically running the show now."
"I'm still welding a little to keep the cash coming in," Ron admits, "but that should be winding down soon. We have 14 acres up and producing right now, but there are 16 coming later and the goal is to have 40 going strong in just a few more years. Basically, we're already sold out on the hops for this fall."
He concludes, "Colorado is a huge brewing state, and we feel blessed and lucky to have had so much support and help from the local farmers — especially in Olathe."
Not bad for a man who merely read about hops, talked to his wife about starting a new venture, and then jumped in with both feet. Best of all Ron gets to live in Colorado.
"There's so much good culture around Montrose with music and festivals. We just love it here." ❖