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Small-scale hop growing a big business

By July 8, 2012 October 22nd, 2014 News

Wisconsin State Journal – Madison, WI

Owners of Gorst Valley Hops continue to make small-scale hop growing a big business.

This month, the company will ship its first 12 small-scale hop harvesters — the only machine of its kind, they say, made to mechanically harvest hops grown on 10 acres or less.

Most farmers growing hops on less than 50 acres are forced to harvest by hand, said James Altwies, president of Gorst Valley, headquartered near Mazomanie. While it takes six workers an hour to harvest from two bines (the vines on which hops grow), Gorst Valley’s harvester, operated by three people, can harvest 30 to 60 bines an hour.

The Bine 3060 — a combined hop picker and sorter — was two years in the making and sells for $12,900. Large-scale hop harvesters can cost around $180,000 new or $30,000 used, and are too complex to be affordable for small growers, Altwies said.

He and his crew decided not to patent the Bine 3060 because they designed it in part by using expired patents. Besides, “if this sparks someone’s imagination and they want to go off and build their own, fantastic,” he said.

Hops are a key ingredient in beer and give the beverage its fragrant, bitter taste.

Tom Porter, owner of Lake Louie Brewing near Arena, said increased availability of local, small-scale hops offers both creative and economical benefits.

Access to hops locally means less money spent on transportation, which also is better for the environment, Porter said. In addition, using hops grown in Wisconsin allows brewers to experiment with new tastes and flavors that only conditions in this area can provide.

“We’re excited about it adding to the brewer’s palate,” he said.

More than a hobby

Agriculture experts say small-scale hop production is on the rise throughout the Midwest and East Coast, and a small-scale harvester is critical for that trend to advance.

“Without mechanical harvesting, hop production in Wisconsin will stay at the hobby level,” said Tim Rehbein, an agriculture agent for UW-Extension in Vernon County.

Rehbein said he hasn’t seen the Bine 3060 in action and can’t speak to its effectiveness, however, it’s “very exciting” to have one on the market, he said.

Heather Darby, an agronomist with the University of Vermont Extension, has been working with hops since 2009 and helped design a small-scale hop harvester. The machine’s plans are posted online so people can attempt to build it themselves or have one made.

What makes Gorst Valley’s harvester unique, she said, is its availability to the public. “As far as I know, they are they only one producing something that someone can order and buy,” she said.

Darby said she’s hopeful that between what Gorst Valley and the University of Vermont Extension has developed, small-scale hop growing will become more economically feasible and attract more farmers.

Growing interest

Gorst Valley Hops started in 2008 with the goal of reintroducing hops as a cash crop in Wisconsin. The company offers individual growers technical and farming support in the hop-growing process, which includes design work for the irrigation and trellis systems and pest management. Once these hops are harvested and sold, Gorst Valley receives a portion of the revenue.

Every grower harvests and dries their own hops, and the amount of growth in the last four years has made the Bine 3060 a necessity for many.

The company has grown from seven growers farming 15 acres in 2009 to 32 growers farming 42 acres this year. That acreage is expected to increase to 60 in 2013.

Gorst Valley produced 100 pounds of hops in 2009 and a few thousand in 2011. This fall, the company is expecting 10,000 pounds and it could be 30,000 by 2013.

“We’ve kind of outpaced ourselves a little bit,” Altwies said.

Now some of the growers farming one or two acres want to expand to up to 10 acres.

“It doesn’t get any more complicated; you just have to have the appropriate equipment to handle the volume,” Altwies said.

Added value

The Bine 3060 was developed as part of Bine Implement, an equipment manufacturing company formed under Gorst Valley to focus on designing small farm equipment for high-value niche crops like hops.

Gorst Valley tested various prototypes during the past two seasons before rolling it out this spring. The company now is developing a hop dryer with the goal of offering a suite of equipment for the small-scale hop farmer.

To keep up with expanding hop acreage and business plans, Gorst Valley formed Phyta (short Latin for “plant”), as a holding company for Gorst Valley, Bine Implement and Atlantic Hops (another company based in New York).

Gorst Valley’s success has gained the attention of some of Wisconsin’s big-name craft brewers, including New Glarus Brewing Co., which is making a small-batch beer with Gorst Valley hops this year.

“We’ve worked hard over the last few years to demonstrate to (brewers) that there is added value in how we’re doing this and they have seen it and they’re willing to pay for it,” Altwies said. “They are becoming much more astute in what they’re demanding from their ingredients now … and that makes me very happy.”


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