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Farms tapping into a new crop — hops

By Nick Vlahos • Sep 3, 2017 at 6:00 AM

LEWISTOWN (TNS) — From U.S. Route 136, the Kotewa family farm looks like just about every other farm in this part of Illinois. Plenty of corn and soybeans.

Turn off the main highway onto Winters Lane and look to the right, and a more unique view emerges. One of vines growing on trellises almost three times as tall as an average man.

On about 10 acres of their 309-acre spread, the Kotewas have established something not often seen in these parts -- an honest-to-goodness hop yard. Hallowed Hops Farm is attempting to help establish an Illinois beachhead for a key ingredient in beer.

Just a handful of hop yards can be found in central Illinois. Among them is an acre near Quincy and a few more near Paxton. Most hops used in brewing are grown in the Pacific Northwest or in Germany.

"I think what we're really trying to do is maybe promote hops production in Illinois," said Jim Altenhein, co-proprietor of the Quincy operation, Mississippi River Hops. "Right now, we're just having fun learning it."

That fun can have a price.

Attempts to produce a non-traditional crop, at a total initial investment that can reach almost $15,000 an acre, have resulted in much trial and error for the Kotewas the past three years. But they persist.

Among the impetuses are the craft-beer craze, major brewers' domination of the commercial hops crop and a trend toward localization and artisanal production. A fair amount of passion doesn't hurt.

"It's one thing to dabble with hops in your backyard, but if people are thinking about growing hops, you have to have an all-in attitude," said Erik Kotewa, one of three sons of Larry and Julie Kotewa.

With a master's degree from the University of Illinois, Erik Kotewa worked in economic development in Champaign County before he returned to his roots. With a twist.

"You can't have a full-time job and grow hops," Kotewa said. "You're going to be paying somebody else to do what you should be doing. And they're not going to do as good of a job. So you're going to fail."

Failure might have seemed plausible at least a few times as Kotewa and brothers Aaron and Caleb pursued alternative cropping.

There was more to producing hops than just procuring the upward-growing plants. The Kotewas purchased cables. They went to the forest to cut wood for poles. They put in the plants and put up the trellises.

"Then, finally, OK, it's done. Well, we did everything backwards," Erik Kotewa said, with a chuckle, about the plant-trellis sequence. "It's supposed to be the other way around."

Some of the plants Kotewa purchased, from a supplier in Washington state, were diseased. Quality issues resulted in the destruction of about 700 pounds of hops last year.

An acre can produce as many as 2,000 pounds of hops. An average of 8 to 13 ounces of hops can be used in each barrel of beer, although certain styles can require more. A barrel is 31 gallons.

Certain varieties of hops — Kotewa grows more than 20 — are better in certain types of soil, not necessarily in Fulton County clay. Kotewa had to install or rebuild drainage and irrigation systems.

Because of the structure and density of the crop, hops cultivation and harvesting is labor intensive. Kotewa said he has a list of about 18 people he can contact to supplement his four regular employees, including himself.

"I'm hoping that next year, we can find some people who are really good workers," Kotewa said. "This year we found a lot of people who take a smoke break every 10 minutes. I'm like, 'Just work for an hour, and then you can have a smoke break.'

"It's just such a learning experience here."

The value of that education is likely to become evident in the next year or two, Kotewa suggested. By then, Hallowed Hops Farm is expected to have kinks worked out and be in position to supply craft brewers reliably.

But the Kotewas' project already has a few minor victories.

Soon-to-be-revamped Peoria Brewing Co. has purchased some Hallowed Hops efforts, Kotewa said. So have Engrained Brewing Co. of Springfield and Triptych Brewing of Savoy.

But some craft brewers have yet to use regional hops in their beers. In part, that's because it's such a new concept, according to Bill Morgan, head brewer for The Blind Pig Brewery of Champaign.

"(Farmers are) very busy with what they're doing, but they do tend to look at it largely from the grower's end of the equation," said Morgan, who like Altenhein visited Hallowed Hops for a recent field day. "They don't always see what the brewer needs or wants out of that product."

Most craft brewers don't have equipment that can accommodate whole hops, Morgan said. Pelletized hops, which larger growers are better able to produce, require less storage space and are less susceptible to oxidation and aging issues.

"When you get in the hops-growing business, you may not know that," Morgan said. "You might think, 'I've got this wholesome, beautiful product that's hand-cared for and is in perfect shape.' The brewer goes, 'It looks great, but I can't utilize it because my system won't allow it.'"

Still, Morgan said he's open to using hops Illinois farmers have grown: "We want to support local agriculture as much as we can."

With hops, that can be done through products other than beer.

Hops can be used in soaps and various body-hygiene products, according to Sean Park, program manager for the Macomb-based Illinois Cooperative Development Center. Altenhein mentioned hops-infused coffees and teas.

"I think there's a really great potential," Park said. "This has always been a great agricultural area. It's just a market we haven't tapped into."

Beer taps probably are the ultimate destination for most of Kotewa's production. Those suds might taste a little different than similar styles produced with hops grown in more conventional locales.

Just like vines and trellises might look a little different in corn-and-beans country.

"It's going to have a character all its own," Kotewa said about Illinois-hops beer. "For wine drinkers, it's the flavor of the local soil. I think if beer drinkers would give locally hopped beer a chance, they'll be pleasantly surprised about what local brewers can make with local hops.

"We can talk to the brewers all day. But at the end of the day, it's the consumer that has to like the beer."

Nick Vlahos can be reached at 686-3285 or nvlahos@pjstar.com. Follow him on Twitter @VlahosNick.


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