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Photo By Jane Myhra

Hops: An alternative crop with a niche market

Sept. 27, 2012 | 0 comments





Ten years ago, it was a dairy farm. Today, hops are raised on the Bronk property off Rolling Hills Road near Custer.

Mike and Jim Bronk converted the family’s 110-acre dairy farm into a hops farm in 2011.

The hop plant is an herbaceous perennial used primarily as a flavoring and stability agent in beer, to which they impart a bitter, tangy flavor. Hops are also used for various purposes in other beverages and herbal medicines.

Commercial growers train the vigorous, climbing plants to grow up strings in a field called a hopfield, hop garden, or hop yard. Typically, these strings hang from a line extended between tall poles and then anchored to the ground.

Mike Bronk said the hardest part was getting the 180 utility poles in the ground because, "You can’t dig a hole in Custer without hitting a boulder."

He admits it was a tedious task and they found a lot of rocks.

"It was interesting when they came up with the (hops) idea," said their mother, Eileen.

She still lives in the farm house next to the hops yard. Her sons have houses on separate edges of the property.

Mike’s daughter, Amanda, also helps with the hops business, but her involvement extends beyond the family farm. She is a charter grower coordinator for the processing company Gorst Valley Hops. Currently she manages about 30 growers.

Formerly a science teacher, Amanda credits her father with getting her involved with a new career.

"I work for him and he grows for me," she explained.

Harvesting hops

In 2011, their first crop of about 1,250 plants was harvested by hand at a rate of 30-50 plants per hour. Total yield was about 85 pounds of dried hops.

This year the Bronks have 2.4 acres with 2,800 plants consisting of five different varieties. According to Amanda, there are currently about 12 miles of "twine" hanging from their trellises.

In anticipation of a larger harvest in 2012, the Bronks imported a used Wolf Harvester from Germany. Considered a high-tech machine in the 1970s, the harvester has become obsolete in Europe as larger improved models are being built.

"These machines are perfect for the small-scale farm," Mike said.

However, the harvester arrived in two pieces with no instruction manual and some directions written in German. Luckily, they were able to get help from other growers in the "hops community."

With the Wolf Harvester, this year they were able to pick up to 140 bines an hour. The harvest typically occurs in late August or early September.

"If we had people hand picking this year, we still wouldn’t be done," Amanda said.

"It cuts down our man power cost and you can run out of friends pretty quickly," Mike added. "Now we can harvest with as few as three people."

The 2012 harvest yielded about 300 pounds of dried hops.

Ag tour

The Bronk Family Hops Farm was host to an agriculture tour on Wednesday, Sept. 19. The tour was sponsored by the Agri-Business Committee of the Portage County Business Council to celebrate ag industry in Central Wisconsin.

"It takes 3-5 years for a hops plant to reach maturity, based on grower capabilities and how they care for their yard," Amanda told the tour participants.

Plants will produce for about 20 years.

She noted that one acre will usually yield about 2,000 pounds of dry hops, which is five times less than the field weight. A one-acre hop yard usually has about 1,250 plants.

She was asked how much water the plants need and how they are irrigated.

The Bronks use a drip irrigation system, with the ability to set each zone to a different rate. They needed to increase the water amount this year, using about 20,000 gallons per week. Amanda noted that hops hate hot weather.

The biggest problem the Bronks faced this season was a spider mite infestation brought on by the dry, hot conditions.

Another participant asked how long hops have been grown in Wisconsin.

Mike noted that hops had previously been grown on their land in the late 1800s, according to town of Stockton records. During that period, Sauk County was one of the largest producers of hops in the U.S.

Are there plans to expand the operation?

Mike said the plan is to wait one year before expanding the hops yard, "But we have the entire winter to think about it."

"They are certainly easier to take care of as they mature," he said.

Drying hops

The tour moved from the hops yard to the original dairy barn, where the hay mow had been converted to a drying area.

"We don’t use any heat in our drying process," Amanda said. "We think drying slower (without increasing air temperatures) holds in the quality of the hop variety."

The hops are harvested at about 70-90 percent moisture, and the Bronks bring the level down to about eight percent before sending the product to be packaged. By using forced air, they can get the moisture level down to 17 percent.

Their dry time is about 3-4 days (hops have a 10-day level of maturity).

The Bronks market their hops through Gorst Valley Hops.

Hops facts

Hops are the female flower clusters (commonly called seed cones or strobiles) of a hop species, Humulus lupulus.

Hops were cultivated continuously around the 8th or 9th century AD in Bohemian gardens in the Hallertau district of Bavaria and other parts of Europe.

The first documented use of hops in beer as a bittering agent is from the 11th century. Before this period, brewers used a wide variety of bitter herbs and flowers, including dandelion, burdock root, marigold, horehound (the German name for horehound means "mountain hops"), ground ivy and heather.

Hops are used extensively in brewing for their many purported benefits, including balancing the sweetness of the malt with bitterness, contributing a variety of desirable flavors and aromas, and having an antibacterial effect that favors the activity of brewer’s yeast over less desirable microorganisms. Historically, traditional herb combinations for ales were believed to have been abandoned when ales made with hops were noticed to be less prone to spoilage.

Many varieties of hops are grown by farmers around the world, with different types being used for particular styles of beer.

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