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Hopping on the beer bandwagon

September 18, 2018

FOUNTAIN — For most batches of beer brewed at Karst Brewing Co., it’s usually only brewery co-owners Eric Louma and Sandy Seha who share the labor.

On Aug. 19, the Fountain microbrewery had a few dozen assistant brewers who helped harvest fresh, Minnesota-grown hops.

On Sunday, many of those assistants returned to taste the fruit of their labors — a fresh-hopped red ale made with hops from Civil Sass Hops in nearby Chatfield.

The Sunday beer release included live music, food trucks and beer featuring centennial hops grown in Southeast Minnesota.

“It’s a nice way to showcase local businesses and showcase local agriculture,” Louma said.

Civil Sass began operations about three years ago. Last year, the operation produced enough hops to provide Karst Brewing hops for a batch of beer and sell what was leftover elsewhere. This year, the crop is mature enough that most of the 1,800 bines of six hop varieties at Civil Sass produced plenty to go to local brewers. What’s left will go to Iowa to process into pellets.

Normally, brewers use processed hop pellets or dried hops to add flavor to beer to balance the sweet malts.

“You’re losing all that water,” Louma said. “Along with that water, you’re losing a lot of flavor compounds.”

For Karst, and a few other Southeast Minnesota breweries, geography and a good harvest offered a unique opportunity to brew one-time batches of beer.

Civil Sass was able to provide fresh harvested hops to Karst, Grand Rounds and Kinney Creek in Rochester. They’re also discussing providing fresh hops to Little Thistle, which opened in Rochester last month. For fresh hop recipients, the process needs to move quickly — within 48 hours of harvest.

“A fresh-hopped beer offers a whole different flavor,” said Jake Sass, co-owner of Civil Sass hop farm. “It’s something you can only do once a year.”

“It tastes fresh, but it’s also about the atmosphere,” said Jason Jeffers, of Chatfield, who attended the Karst beer release Sunday. “That’s what’s fun about breweries.”

While the process to pelletize hops is mechanized, picking the hop cones off the bine for brewing takes manual labor. So Karst and Civil Sass held a picking contest Aug. 19 in Fountain on the street outside the brewery.

Those hops were put in a cooler, and Louma brewed with them the next day. Also on Aug. 19, Sass delivered 70 pounds of fresh picked Centennial hops to Grand Rounds, where they were used in the brewery’s latest batch of Hop Bollocks. That beer debuted Tuesday.

Sass said the operation could scale up and pelletize all their hops, which could mean less work after an initial investment. However, their crop would be just another product in a crowded and competitive market. Delivering fresh hops to local breweries benefits both growers and brewers, despite some extra leg work and picking, he said.

“If we’re going to be a local provider of hops, we’re going to have to partner with breweries and provide something unique,” Sass said.

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