A South Dakota hops dealer is seeking to partner with the southwestern Idaho business world to change the fundamentals of hops shipping in the United States.
But first he has to win three industries over.
“It’s almost as if no one had ever tried freezing a hop,” said Steve Polley, owner of Dakota Hops and the man who would replace an industry norm with what is believed to be a risky fad.
The industry standard is to dry hops with giant kilns to preserve them for shipping. Polley said freezing would preserve their flavor for the breweries that use them.
Some hops farmers in Idaho say freezing the hops would turn them into a mushy – and unusable – mess.
Diane Haas, a hops grower at Gooding Farms near Parma, said it will take work for Polley to win over the farming crowd.
“I’m not going to bad-mouth them and say it won’t ever work,” Haas said. “Maybe it will, but they have a lot of proving to do.”
Haas said some hops growers might be hesitant to sell Polley their crops if they believe freezing them would lower the quality and perhaps reflect badly on the farm. But she said he is likely to find someone willing to sign a contract.
Polley said the growers are the toughest group for him to get through to.
“Attitude is a big part of this,” he said. “There are a lot of hop growers that are very suspicious, very guarded in the information they will share.”
Polley is looking for partners, such as a local food plant that freezes its wares, to help him process hops. He wants to find a partner in southwestern Idaho so he can take advantage of close proximity to Idaho and eastern Oregon hops growers with huge yields. Idaho, Oregon and Washington produce virtually all of the United States’ hops, with Idaho producing just less than 8 percent of the total U.S. yield, according to the USDA’s 2011 national hops report, the latest available.
Dakota Hops has used some liquid nitrogen freezing technology to preserve hops from a 20-acre organic hops farm near Wilder run by Nate Jackson, but it does not have the capability to freeze and package a large enough amount of hops to make the venture work, Polley said.
This is the first year Polley hasn’t had state or federal grants for his company. He has never had an investor. Polley had operated his own company searching records before he went into agriculture after applying for and receiving his first grant. His company began as a service that tested the environment in South Dakota for growing hops. Then it shifted to become a hops distributor, Polley said.
He still has leftover government grant funding, but this year he will have to seek ways to supplement it.
Jeff Kronenberg, a food processing specialist at Boise State University’s TechHelp, said there are plenty of food freezers in southwestern Idaho, and he believes that the high-end ones could likely freeze hops pretty well. What Polley isn’t likely to find here, however, is anyone willing to play ball, Kronenberg said.
“There aren’t really contract freezers in Idaho,” he said.
That’s because people who own freezing technology in the region all use it for their own foods. Bringing in an aromatic product like hops and putting it in their equipment poses a danger of contaminating other foods with the flavor, Kronenberg said.
There is also the problem of the type of freezing technology. Some frozen foods become soggy when reheated. Kronenberg said the standard food-freezing capabilities around the region might do that to the hops, although there are some higher-quality freezers around – and even a couple that use technology as good as Polley’s small-scale freezer.
“Liquid nitrogen is very expensive. It is the highest-quality freezing technology. It is used on really fragile foods, like strawberries,” Kronenberg said.
Polley said even without an agreement with a freezer, he would need to make some sort of financial partnership to get a processing plant up and running.
And if Polley navigates his hurdles with hops growers and freezers, he still needs to find himself someone to sell hops to.
That’s the easiest part, he said. Polley has been working with professional breweries, such as Deschutes in Oregon, to test his hops on some different batches. He is trying to do similar work with other breweries all over the west. The only brewery with a presence in Idaho that he has approached is 10 Barrel. The Oregon-based brewery has a location in downtown Boise.
Garret Wales, a co-owner of 10 Barrel, said he was unable to comment.
All Dakota Hops has to do is show the breweries that his hops taste better, Polley said.
“I know we have a very long learning curve in convincing the hop (growing) people this will work, but we will have an easier time convincing the brewery people,” he said.