Hop harvesting, pelletizing, and packaging
McCauley and his partners, Scott Ziebell and the father-and-son team of Doug and John Rademacher, know a thing or two about hops. The Rademachers are longtime family farmers, and John and Scott started a hop farm of their own -- RadZie Hops -- a few years ago in unincorporated Weld County. The group of friends subsequently decided to buy the former Front Range Hop Company's equipment and take over its leased space to move into the harvesting, processing, and selling of hops for other local growers as well.
"Right now, wholesale hops to breweries make up the biggest percentage of our business," McCauley says. "Our state is very Colorado proud, and the Colorado brand is a big thing; you see it everywhere. That's really what we're all about -- getting more Colorado hops into the market -- especially for those breweries who are very much about making Colorado beers."
Though they only have one season under their belts so far, hops pelletized by Colorado Hop Company have been used by Our Mutual Friend and Beryl's Beer Co. in Denver as well as numerous other breweries throughout Colorado. "Verboten used our hops in one of their Dankey Kang series and is now using them in a smash ale," McCauley says. "Upslope Brewing Company has also done a smash, and though Grimm Brothers Brewhouse hasn't brewed a beer with ours yet, we're contracted to do a couple hundred pounds of hops with them."
Most recently, McCauley and his partners had the opportunity to brew a collaboration with Longmont's 300 Suns Brewing. "They used 10 varieties of our Colorado hops," he explains. "It's a 10-hop double IPA with all Colorado ingredients." He also notes that City Star Brewing in Berthoud produces their popular Local Yokel American Pale Ale with whole leaf hops that Colorado Hop Company sources from a farm in Fort Collins.
The company processed 4,500 pounds of Colorado hops over the course of four months in 2016, from the beginning of harvest in August to finishing up in December. McCauley says it's possible that number will double in 2017 due to the growing cycle of the hops at the farms they're already working with. That's a good thing, as the demand for high-quality Colorado hops continues to increase.
"There are native hops all over the world," McCauley says. "I'd like to see Colorado start to create new varieties -- like the Yakima Valley in Washington does -- especially if they can do so with native hops." Because Colorado Hop Company has the equipment necessary to reduce a small hop farmer's harvest time from 10 hours with 35 people down to a mere three with just a few, more of them may be willing and able to do so as well. "We want to entice smaller farms to expand and grow the varieties and Colorado brand of hops more, especially along the Front Range."
McCauley says high-altitude hops have a different character than those grown in the Pacific Northwest. "They have a tendency to have a higher alpha-acid level than lower altitude hop varieties. This can benefit the brewer with higher IBUs."
So, what makes Colorado Hop Company pelletized hops so special? According to McCauley, it's the hands-on care they put into their product. "Our hops can stand up to or maybe even exceed the quality of that made by larger-scale hop processors," he says. "We're basically craft hop processors, if you will, with a very labor-intensive system that makes sure the care a small, local hop farmer puts into his crop is carried all the way through processing to brew day."
And pelletized hops decrease storage volume by more than 10 times. "This is quite significant," McCauley adds. "Plus, the shelf life is longer, and some brewers find that the utilization of a pelletized hop is better because you get more surface area contact with the hop as the pellet dissolves than you would with whole leaf. You also avoid product loss due to whole leaf hops absorbing an exorbitant amount of liquid."
To preserve the hops' oil and acid content as well as guarantee the freshest product possible, Colorado Hop Company dries whole leaf hops using forced air. "John [Rademacher] designed our drying equipment himself," McCauley explains. "We can dry our hops to the same spec levels without introducing any heat. This preserves the volatile compounds and creates a better product."
In fact, the hops are never subjected to temperatures greater than 100 degrees Fahrenheit at any time during pelletizing -- not even as they are ground into a powder using a hammer mill or pressed into pellets in the pelletizer. McCauley and his partners use liquid nitrogen to cool the powdered hops as they are pressed before placing the finished pellets into a cooler overnight prior to packaging.
"Oxygen will oxidize hops," McCauley notes. "We have an atmospheric vacuum chamber for packaging and evacuate all the air, replacing it with nitrogen. This means there is no oxygen in the bags that contain the hops. As a result, they last longer."
Challenges: Colorado's current hop supply. "Right now, we're just not a very big competitor in the pond," says Scott Ziebell. "We don't have the acreage and the pounds to compete with the Yakima Valley or some of the other parts of the country. That's why we really want to promote the small farmers and help them expand. Even with the bigger farms, we want to do what we can to try to keep those hops in Colorado."
Opportunities: "We'd like to do more with the equipment we have to make it more efficient," says McCauley. "If we can decrease our labor and processing time, we can increase our profit margins. I'd also like to see us build a good relationship with one of the larger Colorado breweries."
Needs: Market awareness. "We need to get the word out that we're here," McCauley says. "Mostly Colorado breweries are buying our hops right now because we're selling a Colorado brand. But we've actually sold hops coast to coast, from Virginia to Oregon, as far south as Florida, to Hawaii, Canada, and Ireland."