Out in the rolling pastures of rural Jordan there is a structure that looks like a harp — one the size that only a giant could play.
The “strings” of the harp are made of an uncommon, bushy vine that stretches from the ground to a wire as high as a telephone pole. They’re called hops and they’re one of the most important parts of making good beer.
But the harp doesn’t belong to a giant, it belongs to Kristen and David Barlage, who partnered with Kristen’s parents, Sue and Mark Schmidt, to create Giant’s Harp Hopyard in 2016.
“After you hang these 2,000 strings it looks like an instrument only a giant could play,” Kristen said. “It’s pretty cool just to walk through the hopyard. It kind of feels like you’re walking through a jungle with the way they’re hanging down.”
When they started the venture, Kristen said they were one of only about 20 acres of hops farmland in Minnesota. Part of the reason may be that it’s something of a “passion crop,” since it’s expensive to set up per acre and time consuming to maintain.
“For 100 bucks and tractor time you can plant an acre of corn,” Mark said. “This is a whole lot different. I guess it’s more of us weirdos that decided to get into something different.”
From the field...
The family has no formal farming background, but Kristen is a technical editor at the American Phytopathological Society, which has given her a solid knowledge base regarding plant growth and pathology. Her mother, Sue, is a master herbalist who grew up on a farm.
“Everybody has their certain jobs they like so everyone works really well together,” David said.
Kristen and Sue prefer to work with the plants, while David likes to mow the field and maintain the grounds. Kristen’s father Mark designed the hopyard and was in charge of building and installing 160 24-foot poles that 1,000 hops plants hang from.
The perennial plants begin growing by themselves every April, but the family needs to drop new coconut fiber strings every year for the hops to climb. They also have to manually train the plants to grow up the strings clockwise.
“Each plant has to be individually trained,” David said.
Training the hops on time is paramount since the plants can grow up to a foot a day. If they aren’t trained in time, the hop vines will get tangled and won’t grow properly.
Once the growing season is in full force, maintenance is as simple as mowing, weeding and pruning. They have to monitor the plants for some insects, but larger animals like deer and rodents tend to stay clear.
“I don’t think they taste good,” Mark said. “They’ve got a rough surface, they’re kind of spiny.”
Kristen said most hops are grown at a similar latitude in the Pacific Northwest, so Minnesota is a fairly complimentary climate. They do have to watch out for mildew however, thanks to Minnesota’s hot and humid Midwestern summers.
“It really is a good place though,” Kristen said. “We get some nice air flow, full sun and it sits on top the hill.”
... to the table
The hops at Giant’s Harp are usually picked around Labor Day weekend, although the harvest could be delayed a week or two this year — along with most other Scott County crops.
The Barlage’s cut the coconut fibers and drop the vines into a truck, which transports them to a hop farmer in western Wisconsin, whose picking machine runs through their entire yield in a couple hours. The process is much faster than it was their first year, when they picked the hops by hand.
“It was tedious,” Kristen said.
“Just one vine will take an hour and there are thousands of them,” Sue said.
Most of the picked hops are returned to the Barlage’s garage, where they are placed in a dryer. Some hops, however, are taken directly to the brewery for a “wet hopped” beer. Wet hopping is a popular, limited release style of brewing that sees the hops go from vine to the vat within 24 hours.
“We pick them, bring them back here, bring them right to the brewer and he makes his beer right away,” Kristen said. “It gives it a different flavor; a dank flavor, a little more earthy.”
Starting last year, Giant’s Harp Hopyard has partnered with Lakeville Brewing Company to produce three beers. The Hashtag IPA is currently on tap and is brewed using only Giant’s Harp hops. In the past they brewed a seasonal hazy IPA using exclusively Minnesota ingredients, including Giant’s Harp hops. They also brew a limited release wet hop beer directly after Giant’s Harp’s harvest.
Kristen said the hops are a time-consuming crop that maintains a steep learning curve, but after three years of growing, she thinks they have a pretty good system. But most importantly, they’re all fans of beer. All four family members say it’s rewarding to sit back and sip a high quality beer they had a significant role in creating.
“We like beer, we like the majestic plant,” Kristen said. “It’s been such a learning experience and it’s rewarding too — I couldn’t wish for a happier couple to be partners with.”