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A farm for beer lovers

Buck Creek Hops to sell hops to breweries all over the Midwest

SOLON– The landscape of Solon is changing. With new bars and restaurants popping up in Solon’s downtown area, including Big Grove Brewery, Salt Fork Kitchen, Eastwood’s and Red Vespa, more people are being drawn to visit. One new business, Buck Creek Hops, aims to help maintain Solon’s growth as a culinary and craft beer destination.
Buck Creek Hops is a local hops farm that is attracting attention from brewers all over the Midwest. Currently, the 100-acre farm has 25 acres of hops, plants used primarily as a flavoring and stability agent in beer. Buck Creek Hops founder Mark Pattison hopes his business will captivate beer lovers.
“We want to make Solon the Napa Valley of beer. People can come tour the hops yards, then go to the brewery, or Vespa. Solon has truly become a destination spot, which is great. It’s been great for the city, the brewery and all these bars,” Pattison said.
The idea of creating the hops farm came about from Pattison’s decision to brew his own beer. He wanted to be able to state on the can it was brewed with his own hops. So Pattison began exploring the idea.
“Through hours and hours of research I figured out that there’s a huge shortage of hops in the U.S., and there’s approximately one to one-and-a-half new breweries opening every day. Because hops take two to three years to mature, it’s hard for that to ever catch up to the demand,” Pattison said.
The growing number of microbreweries has especially affected the hops shortage, because they use more pounds of hops per barrel compared to conventional beers like Budweiser and Coors. Due to this high demand and lack of product, hops prices have been driven higher.
“We’re right in the perfect storm right now, with the whole brewery boom, and that’s not going to change, because kids today are growing up on microbrews,” Pattison said.
Although hops farms presently aren’t very common, Iowa was one of the larger hops-producing states in the country prior to prohibition. According to Pattison, the rich Iowa soil still has great potential for the plant.
“So we took a look at (the information) and thought ‘okay let’s grow hops.’ We have a rougher farm; it’s not real good for a lot of other crops, but let’s grow hops.” Pattison said.
Buck Creek Hops started with a test plot in 2014. The process began by setting up tall poles, and attaching twine to the top of the poles and to the ground. The hops are then planted at the base, and are trained to grow up the twine. To avoid disease, however, the hops began as seedlings with a company in Wisconsin before they ended up at the Solon farm.
After a successful first trial, Buck Creek Hops in 2015 added 25 acres of seven varieties of hops: Cascade, Chinook, Centennial, Columbus, Nugget, Triple Pearl and Sorachi Ace.
“Each plant, at full maturity, will produce two pounds. So we should have somewhere between 50,000 to 70,000 pounds of hops in the next two to three years that we will sell throughout the Midwest to breweries,” Pattison said.
Before the hops can be sold, they first must be processed. A hop grows in cone form, but most breweries prefer them in pellet form. To get them in pellet form, Pattison and his team start their harvest by cutting the twine which the plant has woven around. Next, the strands are fed into a Wolf machine, purchased from Germany, that uses fingers to pick the cones off the plant. In the business’ new 120-foot building, the hops are dried to a level of 10 percent moisture. Once dried, they are processed, which includes being baled, pelletized and packaged.
“There are also a lot of small growers in Iowa that maybe grow a quarter of an acre or half an acre of hops. What we want to do is create a co-op where we have contracted farmers that bring them to us to process,” said Pattison.
While Pattison only started his farm in 2014, Buck Creek Hops is already the largest hops farm in Iowa and the second largest in the Midwest. It has also generated many supporters.
“A lot of the local brewers I met on RAGBRAI stopped by our booth wondering if they could order. That’s why we made a website, so brewers can order one or two ounces,” said Buck Creek Hops’ Marketing and Public Relations Director Jaime Bell.
For Pattison, the hardest aspect of maintaining a hop farm is the labor. The most time-consuming job is training each individual plant to grow clockwise around the twine.
“The plants are perennial, so they’re good for 20-25 years, which means the first year is the biggest part of the job. We put in 1,500 poles, 15 miles of quarter-inch cable, and we hung 30,000 twine strings. So we will have 25,000 (plants) next year. It’s very, very labor intensive,” Pattison said.
Pattison’s team includes his brother Lee Pattison, brother-in-law Dan Paca, and friends Chad Henry and Spencer Weeks. With 2015 being their first commercial year, they have high hopes for the future.
“We want to keep expanding. Our goal is to grow to 50 to 60 acres. We would like to add barley to the mix, as well. A lot of the brew masters asked for malted barley. We’ll want to continue to grow our hops and add varieties, and be a one-stop shop for local breweries. We’d also like to eventually get into oil extraction of hops,” Pattison added.
Buck Creek Hops has hired both college and high school-aged students to work for them on the farm. According to Pattison, the community has also been very supportive, and many of them have gotten involved.
“Anyone can come out during harvest, and help. We’re having a pick-your-own-hops party for anybody that might brew their own beer this fall. But people are welcome to come tour the hops farm, all they have to do is give us a call or go to our website,” Pattison said.
Visit the website at buckcreekhops.com, call 319-331-3198, or email buckcreekhopsllc@gmail.com.