Hopping into an untapped market
Though Eric Sannerud never thought of becoming a farmer while growing up in the suburbs, the 25-year-old may soon own the largest hop farm in Minnesota.
Earlier this month, Sannerud and Ben Boo announced that their company, Mighty Axe Hops, will grow by 80 acres. The expansion would quadruple the amount of hops — a plant used to brew beer — grown in Minnesota.
Currently, the state grows 15 to 20 acres of hops, the Minnesota Daily reports. The general dearth of the plant has prompted issues in crop consistency for local breweries looking to use Minnesota hops, Sannerud, the company's CEO, said.
As a result, many local breweries use hops from outside the state — a practice Sannerud hopes to change.
'You can't go to a restaurant these days and not see the name of the farm where the meat came from,' he said. 'It should be the same way in brewing. We should go to a taproom and see, 'These hops came from here; these are the hops in the beer.''
Three years ago, he and Boo, Mighty Axe's chief operating officer, decided to try growing hops. After local breweries picked them up, the two decided to take the venture further, and started Mighty Axe Hops, using three acres of Sannerud's family farm as a home base.
'That was our exploration, our, 'This seems like a bad idea, but we'll see what happens.' And it turned out to be pretty good.'
But the lack of other large-scale hop growing operations in Minnesota means the duo faces challenges, including how much of the plant can be grown per acre and how to gauge the cost of production.
'The market doesn't exist. No one knows how much a pound of Minnesota hops should sell for; no one knows how many pounds we can really grow an acre,' Sannerud said. 'It's hard to know how much the expenses of your operation will be when you've never done it at this scale.'
Right now, the company only sells to local craft breweries, but Sannerud and Boo said they hope they grow enough hops to sell outside the state.
'Since day one we wanted to do this,' Sannerud said. We're really committed and excited to do it for our job.'
John Brach, president of the Minnesota Hop Grower's Association, said Minnesota's humid climate makes disease a prominent issue for hop growers.
Most breweries in the state opt to make seasonal beers from local hop farms, since the roughly 20 acres in Minnesota aren't enough to supply year-round beers, he said.
'You got to look at it from the brewer's standpoint. None of us can provide the quantity a larger operation can provide,' Brach said.
He said he sees Mighty Axe Hops as the next step for the Minnesota hop industry to become a reliable option for local brewers.
Kale Johnson, president and master brewer of 56 Brewing, said his business tries to use locally sourced ingredients as often as possible.
Johnson has seen Minnesota's hop industry grow, but the inconsistency in supply has caused his brewery to grow its own ingredients for their brews. Still, he said, the brewery often buys from local hop farms.
'There is definitely a shortage in hops (in Minnesota),' Johnson said.
Sannerud and Boo hope to encourage more people to take up hop farming. They said they noticed a lack of literature in Minnesota-centric growing, so they created a 'Minnesota Grower's Guide' on their website.
For Sannerud, farming goes beyond financial gain.
'Farming, for me, is a really tangible way to be in touch with my heritage. This is the same farmland that my great-grandpa farmed. That's a special feeling,' he said.