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Beer has been a part of human history for 5,000 years, and homebrewing and microbreweries have enjoyed a resurgence in popularity during the last 20 years, especially in Colorado. Hops, which provide flavor and act as a preservative, are an essential ingredient in beer.
The hop plant is a rhizome, with an underground root system that grows horizontally and can produce new shoots and stems. Bearded irises are another rhizome.
The hop plant is also related to hemp, as both are members of the Cannabaceae family. Seven years ago, brothers Kevin and Kristopher Borchard were fishing along the White River when they came across a wild hop plant. That discovery sparked an interest in whether the plant could be grown commercially in Rio Blanco County.
The Borchard brothers partnered with Dan Ward, a Longmont native, and started Smoking River Hops. They bought property along the White River in December 2016 and began an entrepreneurial experiment in agriculture.
According to Kevin Borchard, perhaps better known as Pioneers Medical Center’s leading orthopedic surgeon, White River valley pioneers brought hop plants with them to make their own beer. The plants outlasted the settlers. Borchard said they’ve found plants growing wild on Miller Creek and even up South Fork.
The first year of business was dedicated to setting up the hop field. Using metal posts set up using techniques similar to those used for power poles has saved the field from wind damage, even with winds this year that snapped nearby cottonwoods. The hop field has remained standing, and the “bines” have climbed to their 20 foot harvest height on ropes made from coconut fiber.
In 2017 they planted four acres and four varieties. In 2018 they expanded the field to nine acres and added nine more varieties of hops. Each variety has a slightly different aroma and provides different flavors.
Irrigated with a drip system, Kevin said the plants have used significantly less water than the neighboring hayfield, but it’s a more labor intensive crop to produce from start to finish.
Each mature plant can produce three to four pounds of fresh hops. Fresh hops can be used in beer, but has to be processed within 18-24 hours. Getting the fresh product to area brewers in that window of time can present a challenge, but they’ve done it. Dried hops and pelletized hops are also available for sale, for both commercial and homebrewers.
As the first hops production facility in the area, the success of Smoking River Hops may indicate a new source of economic diversity in agriculture.
Learn more at smokingriverhops.com