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Brewery looking at ways to use more local grains gets hops from Clear Lake grower

By Jean Caspers-Simmet

Date Modified: 08/21/2013 7:56 AM

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NORTHWOOD, Iowa — Peter Ausenhus and his wife, Margaret Bishop, own Worth Brewing Company, one of the smallest licensed breweries in the country.

Ausenhus brews beer on the first floor of a historic building on Northwood's Main Street. Bishop operates Bishop Energy Engineering upstairs.

Tri-County Ale, which uses hops from Cerro Gordo County, honey from Ausenhus' Worth County bees and oatmeal processed in Mitchell County, is among the first products made from local ingredients.

"It would be great to brew a beer with 100 percent local grains," Ausenhus said at a recent Practical Farmers of Iowa field day at his brewery. "Right now, local ingredients are a small fraction of what we use."

Ausenhus brews two 10-gallon batches of beer every Monday, Tuesday and Thursday. He sells it in his tap room, which is open Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays.

"I use wheat, barley, corn, rye and oats, but it has to be malted," Ausenhus said. "There is a guy from Mason City who is looking at very small scale malting."

Ausenhus buys malted grains from Rahr Malting Company in Shakopee, Minn., but would consider local grains if they were malted.

Ausenhus grows some of his own hops and also uses hops grown by John Barlow, of Clear Lake.

Barlow, a Clear Lake software trainer and home-brewing enthusiast, started growing hops in 2006 on his father's farm south of Clear Lake.

In 2009 when Ausenhus told him there was a hops shortage, he offered some and now trades hops for beer.

Barlow has brewed beer since 1994 and makes 12 to 14 batches each year. Although he has won medals for his beer at Chicago, Minneapolis and St. Louis competitions, he said he doesn't want to be a commercial brewer.

"It's pretty cool to come here with family and friends and say my hops are in the beer," Barlow said.

Hops are a perennial plant with the female plants producing flowers that yield cone-shaped fruits. Hops are propagated from rhizomes, sections of root from existing hop plants.

"Hops provide bitterness to offset the sweetness of malt sugars," Barlow said. "Hops also act as a preservative for beer."

Beer brewers have been using hops for 1,000 years, and there are at least 80 varieties on the market.

Barlow grows Cascade and Centennial varieties. Hops are grown worldwide between the 35th to 55th parallels north to south. Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, New Zealand, Australia, Canada and the United States all produce hops.

Hops need good soil, a minimum of 15 hours of sunlight and 120 frost-free days. Hops, which grow on climbing clockwise bines, can shoot up one foot per day and 30 feet in a season.

The hops climb up the support wire on the yard light pole.

"When it was time to harvest, we realized we didn't have a ladder that tall," Barlow said.

Now they grow hops on a four-foot fence along the grain bin, on chicken wire along the shed and along the dog kennel. They use clotheslines along Barlow's grandmother's garage.

To provide proper nutrients, Barlow applies compost every year or two. Hop aphids and spider mites can harm hops. Barlow has yet to use an insecticide because a steady supply of lady bugs eat the aphids.

While commercial hop growers have mechanized harvesting equipment, Barlow picks his crop by hand "one cone at a time." Centennial hops ripen from mid- to late July. Cascade is ready for picking in late August to early September. Barlow produced 6.4 pounds of hops in 2012.

Hops have to be dried as soon as harvested. He uses a 12-shelf food dehydrator to dry hops at 95 degrees for 48 to 60 hours.

Hops will deteriorate quickly when exposed to oxygen, light and warmth so it is packaged as quickly as possible. It's packaged as leaves or pellets. Barlow weighs, vacuum seals and freezes his hops.