Tuesday, August 25, 2015

A Season at Tim Pfeister’s Hop Yard

Tim Pfeister has spent the summer coaxing his now towering plants up from the earth. He's established a hop yard just west of Oshkosh in the Town of Algoma. It may be the only plot of its kind currently under cultivation in Winnebago County. "I know of nobody else doing this around here," Pfeister says. At the same time, he's reviving a type of agriculture that was once deeply rooted in our area.

During the latter half of the 1800s, hop farms were scattered across Winnebago County. As the local brewing industry grew, more than 130 acres of farm land here were claimed by hop production. At less than an acre, Pfeister's hop yard is small by those standards. His timing, however, is much the same. With local breweries again on the rise, Pfeister's first-year hop yard has come into full flower.

But Pfeister hasn’t taken his inspiration from the past. His project is more akin to the small-batch segment of the modern craft brewing movement. His fractional acre is the agricultural equivalent of a nano-brewery. Unlike artisanal brewing, though, the model for growing hops at this scale has yet to be established. Pfeister is figuring it out as he goes along.

Early May. Plotting the Hop Yard

"I've been stopped out here by a few curious individuals," Pfeister says. "Sometimes they look at me like I'm crazy." The reaction is understandable. This isn't the kind of thing people are used to seeing around here anymore.

What used to be a pumpkin patch is now spiked by nine 20-foot poles. They form the basis for a trellis that stands in three rows strung with 66 hop plants, nearly all of them more than 16 feet high. "Originally, I was going to go 99 plants in three rows," he says. It's probably for the best he didn't. "Sixty-six plants has kept me very busy," Pfeister says.

His project began with a search. "I was all over Craig's list looking for land," he says. The field he eventually located and now rents is a short drive from his home. That proximity would turn out to be important. Pfeister has had to tend to the field on a daily basis.

But first he had to transform the plot into a hop yard. False starts were inevitable. "I wasted $57 renting a post-hole digger," he says. "You start getting into the clay down there and all it does is chatter," he says. "It was a colossal waste of energy and time. My stepson and I came back out here with a clam shell digger. Turns out you can dig a hole pretty fast that way."

They planted each of the nine poles 3.5 feet into the ground. "That was the deepest we could get down," he says. It proved to be deep enough. "We get ridiculous winds out here, but the poles don't sway." With the trellis in place, he added a drip-irrigation system fed from 55-barrel drums filled with water. Lacking an available water source at the site, the metal drums act as a reservoir.

Mid-May. Pfeister with the completed trellis and irrigation system

Meanwhile, he had already started growing three different hop varieties in planters. Pfeister settled on Centennial, Chinook and Cascade hops for his field. Most of the rootstock he acquired from RiteBrew, a mail-order homebrew shop in Little Chute. With the trellis in place, he planted the yard. "I spent a tedious number of hours putting them in the ground," Pfeister says.

That's a theme that comes up again and again when Pfeister talks about his hop yard: the sheer amount of hands-on, time-consuming labor that went into starting it and then sustaining it. "The worst thing for me is that there's only 24 hours in a day," he says. "I work a full time job and after my full time job, this becomes a full-time, part-time job." He also has a wife and family competing for his time. A family that includes a two-month old baby girl. "That kid is so cute," he says. "She gobbles up all my time."

By early summer he had worked out a routine that managed to address all his commitments. A portion of most evenings is spent doing the recurrent work of hop farming. "There's definitely redeeming things to doing this, but there's also a lot of bullshit work," Pfeister says. "It turns into weeds and watering, weeds and watering... and then mowing."

But the bullshit work was paying dividends. By early June the hop yard had taken shape. The plants adapted to the soil quickly. They began rapidly climbing the trellis.

As the season progressed, Pfeister developed a better understanding of what he had gotten into. "Part of the fun about doing it on a large scale like this is that it becomes less about growing hops and more about field management," he says. "It's agriculture at this point. Very small agriculture, but I still have to be more concerned about the overall health of the field rather than the health of any one individual plant."

A good portion of that management has come down to keeping the soil hydrated through an unusually dry summer. It was a problem compounded by the fact that Pfeister had to haul water from his house to the field. He came up with a novel solution. He fills a 55 gallon drum with water at his home. "It costs me 27 cents a fill." Then transports the water in his mini-van to the hop yard. There he transfers the water to his irrigation drums using a pump powered by his car's battery.

"This part is hugely boring," Pfeister admits. But it works. He gets about an hour's worth of watering from each fill. "During the really dry spells I'll run them a half an hour a night," he says. "I'd love to run them in the mornings and at night, but I'm not a morning person. They get their water at night."

And then came the pests. "My biggest enemy has been caterpillars," he says. "They do a lot of leaf damage that the plants just can't sustain. I had to spray them. I use organic practices when and where I can, but the long and short of it is that when you've got pests that are destroying your yard, you don't have much choice."

Mid-June. A hop leaf damaged by caterpillars.

By the first week of July, it was already becoming clear that the season was going to be far more productive than Pfeister had anticipated. Many of the plants had crested the trellis. The flowers that would become cones were sprouting and in abundance.

"This year wasn't supposed to be about the harvest," he says. "It was supposed to be about root establishment. That I'm going to get this big harvest is just a bonus.” Large cones now hang heavy from the bines. They signal the end of the growing season. With that comes a new set of unknowns.

"I'm a little intimidated by harvest time," Pfeister says. "They say it takes one man an hour to harvest one established plant. It will be a very inexperienced process, so we're looking at quite a few man hours out here." After the hops have been picked, they'll need to be dried. Pfeister is building an oast – a kiln for drying hops – to accomplish that. Again, he's venturing into new territory. "I don't know, yet, what to anticipate for volume so that's got me a little nervous."

Pfeister sampling the fruit of his labor.

If he can navigate the harvest successfully, Pfeister will have arrived at another question he didn't anticipate having to answer this year: what to do with all these hops?

"I'd like to send some out for analysis," he says. "That way I can go to a brewer and show them just what I have. Either way, I want to have the analytics done, so that I have some accurate numbers to work from. Unless out of the blue somebody says I want to buy your hops, the odds are I'll be giving them away. Or putting them in my own brews."

After spending time with Pfeister in his hop yard and seeing all that he's done to get to this point, I wanted to know if in hindsight he would have done things differently. Would he have even attempted this? "You mean If I had it all to do over again and I didn't have to worry about my wife yelling at me?" He says laughing. Then he quickly says, yes, he would.

"I'm glad I did exactly what I did here," Pfeister says. "Sometimes, it's a love/hate relationship, but I'm having a lot of fun with it. But it's something I'm doing in the anticipation of greater results. My big thing is, one way or another I belong in this (brewing) industry. I just haven't found my corner yet, my niche. In the meantime, I'm bored and I like growing hops. When the work is done, this is my zen garden. I get to come out here and walk down between these rows of hops. There's nothing else like that."


  1. Excellent article Lee. The best of luck to Tim. Tim's ambition and work ethic reminds me of the original German folks that settled in the Oshkosh area. What would really be cool is if Tim's hops turned out to be a legacy Winnebago county strain. My next glass of beer will be toasted to Tim.

    1. Thanks, Dave, I'm glad you liked it. I had a lot of fun writing it!. We'll see; I have some legacy hops, maybe we can get Tim to plant some of those one day.