Texas brewers constantly experiment with new styles of beer and updated ways of making old favorites. But until recently, there had been one thing they just couldn't do.
Because the essential ingredient of hops thrives in moderate climates such as the Pacific Northwest, our steamy southern state can't grow these little plants successfully — guaranteeing that beers featuring all Texas-grown ingredients are a virtual rarity. Instead, the hops are sourced from Washington, Germany and other major hop-growing regions. (Having Texas-produced malt is much more possible.)
But a pair of entrepreneurs working out of a greenhouse on 160 acres of ranch land overlooking Lake Austin are hoping to change that, little by little. Dan Krause and Chris Redmond began growing four varieties of hops this spring through a new business they’ve dubbed the Hopperdashery. In late summer and early fall, they supplied a number of Austin-area breweries with small amounts of fresh hops, the products of their first harvest.
One of the hop varieties grows outside using recycled water from the nearby greenhouse — a completely windowless, dome-shaped structure the two friends built themselves. The other three hop varieties thrive inside this building because of hydroponic farming, a method of growing plants without soil that is probably best known as a common way to grow marijuana.
“For the first year at least, this is proving that hydroponic is just so the way to go, especially in Texas, because there’s just no way these varieties would look like this in 100-degree heat. Giving them exactly what they want, nutrientwise, it means they’re just loving their existence,” Krause said as we walked among the green bines.
Each one snakes upward on waxy twine that Krause and Redmond carefully adjust to give the climbing plants the space they need to grow. Walking into the greenhouse for the first time, visitors — including the brewers the Hopperdashery sells to — are struck by the sight of the stout stems, large leaves and lime-colored, conelike flowers dangling from them, each bine stretched diagonally upward in narrow rows down the 2,600-square-foot space.
Hop plants naturally want to grow straight into the air, but once they have committed to twirling around the lines, each one is angled by Krause and Redmond in a technique called leaning and lowering. The hops are able to do so well because of the hydroponics system that helps supply not only the plants' water but also the nutrients they would otherwise receive from soil. All of the water given to the hops comes from a well on ranch property, Krause said.
He and Redmond, a longtime homebrewer and science teacher at Bowie High School, wanted to join Austin's thriving beer industry but decided starting a brewery would be too difficult.
"How can you open a brewery in this day and age that would be unique and fun?" Krause said. "That's when we thought of, 'Hey, what if we grew the thing that makes beer smell so delicious? And what if we figured out how to do it in freaking Texas?'"
Redmond added, "Texans love Texas, so if we could help a brewery create an all-Texas beer, that would be a huge thing."
The brewers they've talked to seem to think so, too, and made the drive this year to the ranch off RR 620, in Lakeway, to take a look at the crops that hydroponics made possible. Krause's wife's family has owned the Horseshoe Bend Ranch for 70 years and once raised Angora goats on the rugged, hilly land. Now, the Hopperdashery is the main agricultural producer there. Several months into it, Krause and Redmond have big plans for their business.
The Hopperdashery's goal is to supply Texas brewers with locally grown wet hops so they can make the wet-hop IPAs popular during harvest time. For the majority of the year, beers are produced with hops in pellets, powder or other processed, dried-out forms. But during the September hop harvest in the Pacific Northwest, breweries across the country wanting to produce fresh or wet-hop beers have the hops shipped immediately after they're picked, so they come as whole hops.
The appeal of freshly harvested hops comes from their aroma and flavor. Pellet hops lend slightly different flavors than their wet counterparts, which taste grassy, lacking bitterness. And wouldn't it be cool to supply local breweries with recently picked hops originating just west of Austin, Krause asked.
"We pick the same day that we deliver. Super fresh," he said. Hops "start breaking down plant matter pretty much the second that you pick them. The breweries have had to get them overnighted from the Pacific Northwest, which is a ton of jet fuel and a ton of cost to do that. The whole premise of this was for your beautiful, fresh wet-hop needs."
The Hopperdashery might one day have an additional greenhouse four times the size of the current one and recently established an Indiegogo campaign to help raise money for the project. Although the operation may never supply all of the area's breweries, which now number close to 70 and are only growing, that's not the point.
For now, the Hopperdashery is focused on only three hop varieties — a total of 570 bines — which were chosen because of their potential for delivering the "fruity, citrusy, juicy wet-hop beers," Krause said. A relatively under-the-radar variety, Triple Pearl is on one side, Zeus on the other, with well-known, oft-used Centennial in the middle. Triple Pearl seems to love the hydroponic environment the most, he said.
And outside, the Hopperdashery has experimented with a drought-resistant variety called Neomexicana. About 110 bines were planted purely to see what would happen in the Texas heat, Redmond said; they don't seem to have the lupulin levels of the indoor hops but also might need another year to blossom properly (lupulin, a fine yellow powder, is the active ingredient in hops).
"Hops are kind of like grapes in that they mature every year. Year two or year three is when they really hit their stride," Redmond said, noting that once the harvest each year is completed, the hop plants are trimmed back to 2 feet in length so they can grow anew — at an even larger size — the next year.
He and Krause are excited for next year because, without the weather to restrict them to a particular season, they can have two harvests. So far, they are venturing into unknown territory as one of just two or three operations experimenting with growing hops in Texas. Krause and Redmond are pretty sure they're the only ones taking the hydroponics approach. And as such, they are "kind of paving new ground" and not necessarily following the usual guidelines, Redmond said.
Depending on the volume of hops each plant produces, an amount that varied in the first harvest, the Hopperdashery might be able to supply up to 20 Texas breweries with wet hops. The first harvest was passed onto three area breweries, starting with Boerne's Cibolo Creek Brewing, which released the Zeus Is Loose IPA in mid-September with a mix of Zeus and Centennial hops.
It was the first IPA to feature hops that Krause and Redmond grew, and they were ecstatic, noting in an Instagram post Sept. 15 the beer "came out with really nice pear and lemon notes."
The other Central Texas breweries to receive bags of the bright-green, recently picked hops in September and early October are both in East Austin: Lazarus Brewing and the Brewer's Table.
The Brewer's Table's head brewer, Drew Durish, knew what he had to make when the brewery and restaurant received the final bags of hops, a combined 35 pounds of Zeus and Triple Pearl, that the Hopperdashery produced this year: a hoppy lager. Though the Brewer's Table specializes in lagers, he took inspiration from Austin Beerworks' wet-hop IPA series to add layers of hoppy goodness to a clean malt base, beginning a beer that debuted on Dec. 1 (as, of course, another lager).
"I love how well Hopperdashery fits into our concept, with our intense focus on seasonality and locality in the kitchen and brewery," Durish said. "Hopefully this formula proves successful for them and ultimately inspires a new crop of beer-minded folks to continue looking for ways to make beer and brewing a more locally focused product."
The Hopperdashery is also a sign that breweries aren't the only players within the beer industry to get adventurous, push boundaries and explore new things, he said.
"From an industry perspective, it’s exciting to watch all of the peripheral and agricultural components of beer adapt and innovate," he said.
Krause and Redmond, who recently were mentored by longtime hop growers in Michigan, have chosen to launch their business at a fortuitous time — in the midst of not just a craft brewing renaissance but also a particular focus on hops, thanks to the popularity of IPAs. These ales perhaps best showcase the endless array of aromas and flavors that hops lend to beer, and both hop growers and brewers are finding fresh ways to highlight the hop.
"Even though we’ve been using hops for thousands of years to make beer, I feel like (the hop-growing industry) is just now starting to explode," Krause said. "There’s so much excitement, there’s so much technology going into it, there’s a passion for breeding. I think the next decade for hops is going to be a good one."