Family hops farm finds niche with state breweries
An upstart family hops farm in central Wisconsin is taking the first steps toward making the vine a viable cash crop in Wisconsin again.
Milwaukee residents Joe LeSage and his sister community developer Juli Kaufmann grew up spending time at their parents' cabin in Saxeville alongside the Pine River where a neighbor's farm that bordered the property rented out back acre lots for small crops.
LeSage, who had grown hops before in his backyard as an avid home brewer, saw potential.
"I was bugging them for a while going 'Why don't we grow hops back here? I know all these brewers and it's a viable crop.' And their attitude was 'If it made sense someone would be doing it already'," recalled LeSage, "Finally I got them interested enough that I got them to do one acre."
At the same time Kaufmann was working with a descendant of the Schlitz family at her ancestral farm in Port Washington who mentioned a crop of heirloom hops growing on the property.
"They are the bane of the gardener there because they can't get rid of them," LeSage said.
With permission from the estate, LeSage harvested 75 plants from the property to transplant on the Saxeville farm; turning the gardener's nuisance into part of Wisconsin's first commercial hops crop in years.
LeSage quickly went to work in April constructing trellises made of telephone poles with cables anchored by giant cement blocks to support the heavy and rapidly growing hops vines.
With lots of help from his partners Jim and Janine Christensen who run the main farm, LeSage watched as his dream started to come together.
"Their expertise is in potatoes and pickles, but between them they have 40 years of farming experience. So they are the perfect partners for me because I'm just a city kid with a passion for this kind of stuff," LeSage said.
By September when they harvested the hops, LeSage said the farm had exceeded all expectations.
"It was a remarkable year for us. We eclipsed all the benchmarks for growth and yield and cost and sales too. It was really great," LeSage said.
LeSage said he got a major assist from neighboring farmers who showed up unannounced to help during the harvest.
"In the beginning they would literally just drive across the property sit up on the hill and look at us like we were just the biggest fools, like 'How's the hops farm coming?'" LeSage said. "But on the day of harvest at 6 a.m. four different people came walking up. All the naysayers just sat down and started picking."
LeSage also got a big hand from his Wisconsin brewing partners Capital Brewery and Milwaukee Brewing Company who committed to his crop on faith, not knowing how or if his crop would turn out.
"When Juli discovered these hops and I told Kirby at Capitol Brewery he just said 'We've got to do this,'" said LeSage of his early conversations with Capital head brewer Kirby Nelson.
"When we brought the hops down they were just seeing the pictures and understanding where the hops come from so they had a real connection to it," said Milwaukee Brewing Company owner Jim McCabe, "Following it from where it was planted to finally tasting it, there's great satisfaction in that."
With his yield expected to triple next year LeSage said he is working hard to figure out how much he can effectively harvest without exceeding Wisconsin brewers demands.
"The challenge of how do you get from the backyard without jumping all the way to the typical production, which like most agricultural production now is at the industrial scale with massive acreage," said Kaufmann, "Is there a sweet spot in there where you can grow at a small scale viably? That's partly what Pine River Hops farm is trying to figure out ... How do you make it work?"
In state brewers, who have to ship in the bulk of their hops from the Pacific Northwest, are rooting for the operation.
McCabe bought some of Pine River's hops to use in his Harvest Ale.
"There is a homer side to it. Wisconsin used to be a leading producer of American hops before prohibition and for a number of reasons Wisconsin isn't a producer anymore," McCabe said. "There is a grassroots effort with the number of breweries we have in the state and neighboring states to see if it can be commercially viable again."
McCabe said that buying hops in state also reduces the environmental footprint of the brewing process.
"Hops just aren't available commercially in Wisconsin, so when we saw the photos of how he was going about it, he was doing it right. His trellises looked like they were out of Bavaria," McCabe said.
Kaufmann said that the farms early success can be a model for the changing face of agriculture in the state.
"Having a crop that's viable. That's historically meaningful that can be grown sustainably both for the environment but also economically is really motivating," said Kaufmann, "Understanding that this is not just hobby and its not just cool, but that it's really legit and you can build a model that others can replicate."
Beers brewed with Pine River hops can be found anywhere Capital Brewery's Supper Club beer is sold and Milwaukee Brewing Company's Harvest Ale is available during tours of the the brewery, 613 S. 2nd St., and at Milwaukee Ale House, 233 N. Water St.
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