Cheers To HopsSeptember 16, 2017
Story by Hendrix Magley
Photos by Jacob Wiegand
It’s like gardening — only on steroids.
That’s how Ellen Vonderheide describes the daily work put in by volunteers at the White River Hops farm in Haysville, a business that was started in 2015 by brothers Dean and Kurt Vonderheide with the intention of providing homebrewers and small microbreweries around the area with a variety of different hops not prevalent in Indiana.
Dean recalls attending a conference at Purdue University about farming hops and a hop shortage in Indiana, which got him thinking — if there’s a demand, why not try to start their own farm?
Hops, which are the cone-shaped flowers of the hop plant, are used to help add flavor to beer — different hops can make the drink more bitter or more zesty. The hop flower is picked from a bine, which is a climbing plant that grows in a circular, upward pattern and attach via small hairs on the plant as opposed to a vine, which grows in whichever direction and attach via tendrils or suckers. The brewers are most interested in the plant’s lupulin which is the bitter, yellowish powder from the flower that helps to give the hop its taste.
After retiring from Kimball International in 2015, Dean filed the LLC for White River Hops later that same week. Once retirement set in, he knew he didn’t want to be done with work quite yet.
“I always wanted to work outside so I thought this was something nice to do after retirement,” Dean said. “I didn’t want to grow corn or soybeans, though, because too many people already know how to do that.”
While there are a few smaller hops operations popping up around the state, most people Dean knows just grow a few for themselves and themselves only.
“We had a guy at our house who had 11 hops plants himself and he said his son has another 40,” Dean said. “That’s mostly because you’re seeing more homebrewers and they just want to have their own hops. We don’t ever plan on brewing, just providing good hops.”
In its third year of operation, White River Hops has grown rather quickly to about 2.7 acres worth of hops. The Vonderheides leased the Haysville property from the Hoffman family farm (Ellen’s family) which is located alongside the White River. The operation started with handpicking bines of hops from 22-foot trellises, which took hours upon hours. While volunteers still must cut down the bines of hops, a large automated machine now takes the hops off the bines which makes the work much easier for the volunteers. Kurt said the process has become much quicker and allows them to get more work done in a single day.
“A bine with one person doing it by hand would take about a half hour and now it takes like two to three minutes,” said Kurt, who works at Kimball International when he’s not at the farm. “It’s still definitely a workout but I’d much rather do this than go to the gym and workout.”
Dean praised the help he and Kurt receive at the farm in order to help make day-to-day operations go smoother. From cutting down the bines to inspecting the lupulin and making sure it’s effective for use, there’s a plethora of steps on the daily checklist.
While most of the volunteers are family members such as Kurt’s father-in-law, Jim Thyen, and Dean’s wife, Ellen, others such as John Siebert are family friends who heard about the farm and wanted to help anyway they could.
“In a small operation like this it takes capital and labor — a lot of labor,” Dean said. “Just doing the little things like hand-cleaning the hops, you don’t see the big breweries doing this. There are just some little things that the volunteers do, such as the handling of the hops, that would be automated elsewhere.”
One of the unique attributes of the property is its location. While most of the hops farms Dean has seen are located on flat areas, he wanted to start one in more of a hilly area. He got the idea from a farm he came across in Michigan.
“There’s nothing easy about growing hops on a hill — especially fighting heavy rains and washouts,” Dean said. “But luckily I think we’ve been able to irrigate well and I think we’ve done a great job of controlling and limiting problems that other farms have faced.”
“Too much rain can get mildew started and that can be a disaster,” Ellen added. “That’s why controlling the moisture is important, with the irrigation system we have now we’re feeding the hops water from Patoka Lake.”
White River Hops grows seven different varieties of hops — Zeus, Chinook, Glacier, Newport, Perle, Cascade and Centennial. Breweries use different ones for different ales and beers. For example Schnitz Brewery & Pub uses Cascade in its Indiana Pale Ale while Tin Man Brewing Company in Evansville uses Zeus in its White River Pale Ale and Chinook in Overlord which is their Imperial IPA (India Pale Ale) — all from White River Hops. Price wise, the wet hops (hops that are fresh off the bine) will sell for $6 a pound while the pelletized dry hops (hops that can be frozen to stay fresh longer) go anywhere from $11 to $13 a pound. The amount of hops that are used in a single brew depends on the size of the batch and the style of beer. While Schnitz usually buys about 22 pounds for a batch, Upland uses around 167 pounds for one of its brews.
Schnitz and Basket Case Brewing Company, both based in Jasper, were the first breweries to begin using hops grown at the Haysville farm in what Dean considered to be an experiment. By word of mouth, that led to more and more small breweries visiting the farm and becoming interested in using the wet hops White River provided.
“To provide the kind of (bines) that these breweries need, it takes a significant operation,” Dean said. “When Upland Brewing Company came to visit, they realized that we were a bigger operation than they thought and our goal is to eventually get in a day-by-day business with them.”
For White River Hops to get in business with Upland, which is based in Bloomington, is a pretty important step in its process of becoming more prevalent in the area. Upland is the third largest brewing company in the state behind Sun King Brewing and 3 Floyds Brewing Company.
Dean said it was recently the best time for Upland to start doing business with White River Hops because hops are now in season. Upland first visited the farm in late July but Dean had been in talks with them for most of the summer.
While the brewers can use pelletized hops year-round, now is the season where they can actually get them fresh off the bine — which was what both Upland and Dean prefer.
“We definitely like the wet hops because you can get them straight out of the field with no drying or packaging,” Dean said. “We want the people to be satisfied with what we’re doing. When they come up to the farm to see it on a weekly schedule, they feel more comfortable with the product.”
One of the biggest things the volunteers who help out at White River Hops come to realize is how much of an appreciation they gain for craft beer.
“Some of the people that we’ve had help out here have never drank anything other than a standard Miller or Coors Light,” Kurt said. “But you begin to realize how much work goes into it and they also appreciate the different aromas and levels of hoppiness.”
When he arrives at the farm bright and early around 7:30 each morning, an aroma that is almost indescribable greets Dean — it might have even sparked a future business idea of candlemaking.
“In the morning when they open the shed up after they’ve (hops) been drying all evening, I wish I just could can that smell,” Dean said with a laugh. “It’s easy to tell why hops are used for their aromatic characteristics, it just provides an essence.”
As buckets full of hops and empty bines lay across the ground and the sun sets on another long day’s work at the farm, the crew grabs a cold one to relax and refresh after hours upon hours of physical labor. How else would you expect them to wrap up the day?
“It’s just crazy to me that before I started this, I couldn’t stand the taste of an IPA or any of that stuff,” Dean said.
Thyen was quick to chime in, “Just remember that the next time you drink a beer, think of us.”
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