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Hops Farming: From Bines to Steins

We recently interviewed Devin Winklosky. Devin owns and operates a two-acre hops farm in Western Pennsylvania, which he started into 2020, called Teufel Hunden Hops Company. Devin is also a 2021 recipient of the AgChoice Farm Credit Jumpstart Grant, which awarded 15 startup farmers with a $10,000 grant. For the full podcast, click here:

 


Devin, there is a lot more to your story than what I shared in that short introduction. Could you tell our listeners a bit more about yourself and how you became a hops farmer?

I'm a native Pennsylvanian. I was born in Western Pennsylvania in Latrobe, PA but I grew up on a farm in Derry Township. When I graduated from high school, I went off into the military and served about 22 years in the Marine Corps.

My sisters, my brother, and my parents continued to farm in Pennsylvania. When I retired from the Marine Corps and came back to the area, I really wanted to get back into what my family heritage was and what my family had been doing, which was farming.

The Marine Corps made me a lawyer. I loved the law and I loved helping people, but I really longed to do something that was more in my roots. I considered what possibilities were out there, and for me it was a confluence of three things. For one, I looked at the Pennsylvania craft brewing boom that was happening at about that time and that Pennsylvania was really becoming one of the top three states that craft breweries were springing up in. The second was that people were interested in local ingredients. Then the third thing was that I had a farming background, so I hatched this idea to farm hops. I approached my brother-in-law with this crazy plan. A couple years later, here we are. Two years and 1500 hop plants later, we have our Teufel Hunden Hops Company business.

Devin, you are the first hops farmer that we've had on our podcast, and I'm sure our listeners, like myself, are interested in learning more about hops farming. For those of us with limited knowledge, could you share a bit more about how hops are grown, how they're processed, and then how you market your product

I'm honored to be the first hop farmer on the podcast. I hope I won't be the last one on your show, but I'm glad that I can share some information about hops in general and how they're grown.

A lot of people may know that hops are a main ingredient in beer. Beer has four main ingredients: water, barley, yeast, and hops. Hops usually add the bitter flavor to the various types of beer.

As a plant, hops are perennials. You put a rhizome in the ground. It's primarily a root. The growing season is from about March through September. The plant shoots up what are called bines. They're not vines, they're bines because they have these little prickly things that can attach to cord that comes down from a trellis.

We built a trellis that has 18-foot poles, a wire system, and a cable system that is about 18 feet in the air. We have what's called coyer that come down from the wires up at the top and go to the root of the plant. Like I said, the plant has a bine that grows up and spirals around the coyer. From that bine, cones are produced. The cones are what contain the flavoring and the substance that's used in the beer.

We harvest it and cut down the bines. We feed them through a harvester to shake off the cones. We take the cones and we put them in an oast, which is just a fancy name for a dryer. We dry them down to about 8%, and then we put them into a pelletizing system. We put them through a hammer mill, powder them, pelletize them, and then package them into sealed packaging.

The pellets are what are marketed. They are what the brewers use for their particular brews. Before we sell them, we send them off to a lab to get a chemical profile. The acids and the oils that are contained in the hops are what the brewers use to make their own flavor recipe for the particular kind of beer that they want to craft.

That's pretty much the life span of a hop. It goes from being the perennial plant that's in the ground in the trellis system, to the hop yard, all the way through pelletizing into the brew that you get at your local craft brewery. The Ohio Hop Growers Guild, they refer to it as bines to steins. They go from the bine in the hop yard to the stein on your table.

You had mentioned earlier that you grew up in a farming family, but obviously, starting the hops farm was an entirely new endeavor for you. What did you find most challenging in your quest to begin farming, and what resources did you find helpful in getting started?

I think hops farming for farmers in the Eastern part of the United States, is an entirely new endeavor, not just for me, but even for established farmers who are trying to diversify their operations. It's something that's fairly new. I think it's something that's growing. For me it definitely was an entirely new endeavor.

One challenge is the scale. My two acres is really not very much compared to the big hop growers that are up in the Northwest of the United States. One difficulty was trying to find people who had started hop operations or had started hop yards of about the same size as mine. It was good to know the difficulties they had faced based on their location, soil type, and what type of materials were best for them to use to build the trellis. We were practically putting 80 telephone poles into the ground with aircraft cables in the air. That is not something you normally do in the middle of a pasture. Identifying materials, knowing the right place to put it, and establishing the yard itself was challenging.

Putting a cost figure to that was also hard. How much does it cost to do this from the ground up? If I already have some materials or some equipment, how does that remove some costs from the equation?

When you're talking about equipment, the other thing that was challenging to look at was specialty equipment for this kind of crop. You're working up in the air in a trellis. What type of platform system do you need that's mobile enough to be able to work with the bines? What type of harvester do you need? There's a specialty harvester for removing the cones from the bines. Then there is all the processing equipment, like the dryer and the pelletizing system.  Where do you get those? How much do they cost? Is there a market for used equipment?

What really helped a lot was other local farmers, not just in Pennsylvania, but also in Ohio and New York, where there's some burgeoning hop farming groups. They were extremely helpful, forthcoming with information, and cooperative with best practices. They were wonderful to work with. That's typical in the farming community in general, but because hops farming is so new, everyone was really willing to share best practices, tips, and things to avoid.

The other thing that was very helpful were organizations included in the ag extension services and the colleges of ag. At Michigan State University and Ohio State University, they have well-established programs directed at hop farmers. There's also a national organization that has started to look more at small hop farmers called USA Hops. That's the hop growers of America. They have a lot of resources there for folks like me who are starting a new endeavor.

The process is challenging, but there are resources out there that were available to me and to my partner to make sure that we were going in the right direction.

Teufel Hunden Hops Company is a young business that was only started a couple of years ago. What do you envision for the future? What do the next 5, 10, 15 years look like?

Pennsylvania is really growing in the craft brewing area. There are grants available from the state. As of 2020, Pennsylvania ranked third in the number of craft breweries with 444 and growing. Some people don't realize that Pennsylvania is second in the country as far as the economic impact of brewing, with over $5.5 billion in economic impact. That says a lot about the market for the ingredients for beer. It is lined up with our objective, which is to provide local ingredients to local brewers so that they can make fantastic beers.

I just happen to get the latest copy of Pittsburgh Magazine because we're in the Pittsburgh area, and the cover article is about the brewery boom. It doesn't look like it's going to end anytime soon.

With respect to your question about where we are headed with our business, in the short term we want to get quality local hops to our local craft brewers. In other words, we want to get our hops in their beers, see what they think, get their feedback, and ask questions to learn a lot more about what they want to see as far as the quality of hops, the chemical profile of hops, the flavor profiles of hops. The we can see what we can do to work together with them to produce hops that they want to use in their beers and refine our production and processing.

Insofar as midterm goals, we're really looking at establishing regular customers and working together with them to produce specialty brews that include just our hops. We want be known for being the local hop producer for local beers.

Long term, in 10 to 15 years, we are considering expanding the yard. Maybe we’ll add a few more varieties. We’d like to increase the number of plants we have of our current varieties, improving our processes, improving our product, improving our binding area, and getting our name out there as a recognized name for quality hops in the area.

An extended long-term goal that my brother in-law and I have been talking about is maybe even expanding beyond hops and into malt barley. Malt barley is not difficult to grow. It's one of those four ingredients that's needed in beer. Maybe that's another direction for our agricultural operations.

There's a lot ahead of us, but I am encouraged that we can get it done over the next years.

Can you share one piece of advice you have for someone who is interested in getting started farming or starting an agricultural business of any type?

I would have three pieces of advice. One is to plan. Make sure to plan ahead. When I say plan ahead, that means to not just plan for the next year or two, but to plan for 10 years or 15 years. Where do you want your operation to be? Where do you see yourself at that time?

Make sure to be realistic. What weakness are you facing? What challenges do you face? And don't downplay them. If you're not realistic, when face challenges, you're not going to be prepared to overcome them. Work within your means. When you're planning, make sure that you understand that you have limits to what you can do, and work within those means.

My second piece of advice is to persist. Be flexible in what you are doing, just in case you encounter some rough patches, but do not give up. If you put enough effort into planning and you put enough effort into a vision, then it's worthwhile. You should persist at it and not give up on it. If it's meaningful to you, go for it and keep going with it.

Finally, I'd say to listen. Keep your ears open for what other people have done. Even if it's not in exactly the same area that you're considering, you can pick up tips from all kinds of people in all areas if you keep your ears open and listen. That includes asking questions. Don't be afraid to be the one who asks a question. Who cares if it's been answered already? If you don't have the answer, then that's what matters. Don't be afraid to ask questions, and even reach out and ask for help if needed. Part of being successful is recognizing that you don't know certain things, so listening is an important piece of it.

As we wrap up here, could you tell our listeners where they can find you online to learn a bit more about your business and connect with you?
We have a website, which is teufelhundenhops.com, we also have a Facebook page and, of course, as everyone does, we have an Instagram. You'll recognize our logo. It has a dog with a hop bine over top of it and a big old hop. We welcome anyone to visit us.

I'm in charge of updating it, and my daughter also has a role to play in keeping it updated. We try to update it with pictures and information, but if it's not current, don't worry. We're still here. We still know it's out there, and we're still trying to get it updated. You're certainly welcome to visit us nonetheless on any of those platforms.

Devin, thanks so much for sharing your story with us here today, and congrats again on being one of our recent grant recipients.

Rachel, thanks very much for having me, and I just also want to say thanks so much to AgChoice Farm Credit for your support and your interest in my operation, but also your support and interest in all young and beginning farmers. It really does mean a lot.


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