When cousins Anthony Welty and Brian Dallam put their heads together on this project, Live Wire Hops, things took off quickly. Acknowledging that the craft beer industry had exploded alongside an increasing preference towards locally grown and locally sourced products. They felt our area was well positioned geographically between the Quad Cities, Rockford, Chicago, and Peoria to serve the craft breweries and homebrew clubs of our immediate communities as well as greater Illinois.
“Add to that the fact that we are sitting on some of the richest soil on the planet which can’t hurt,” said Anthony. The hops growing field is located in rural Amboy on the farm of Brian’s parents.
Anthony initially brought it up to Brian in late summer 2016. Brian wasn’t sold on it until after a few more conversations over the winter of 2016-17 and an evening course at the University of Illinois Ag Extension on growing hops. While it could be said that it was Anthony’s idea, it’s ultimately to Brian’s credit that action was taken. “
The following April, 2017 we were digging holes and setting poles to establish the trellis system at the yard.”
Getting started definitely had its challenges. Hops are the second fastest growing plant on planet Earth (behind bamboo) and can grow upwards of 20 feet tall. They therefore need something to climb on and the best way to do that is build a trellis system. The trellis system in and of itself can be quite capital and labor intensive. And there’s always a learning curve when growing a plant you’ve never grown before. Fortunately, the duo has had a lot of help and support every step of the way from our families.
Hops do best in well-drained soils. They require a lot of water but they want it a little bit at a time. Soil pH preferences depend on the variety.
The cousins have planted their hops crop by hand to this point.
Hops require a ton of nutrients so fertilizer is a must. Their macro nutrient requirements are about what you would expect but there are some subtleties with micro-nutrients that have to be accounted for.
There are over a hundred varieties of hops commercially available and hundreds more in trials – all with different combinations of levels of bitterness as well as flavor and aroma profiles. They are currently growing Cascade, Crystal, Centennial, Chinook, Tettnanger, East Kent Golding, and Liberty. All but Liberty appear to be sustainable in our area from their experience.
Right now, they are on about an acre footprint with a half-acre’s concentration of hops with plans to expand. They went with wider row spacing intentionally for a couple of reasons: the first is hops’ number one enemy in our area is mildew and they wanted to maximize air flow to naturally prevent that, the second was because it fit the tractor and equipment.
Hops plants are perennials.
When growing hops, it is good to acknowledge that they take three years to reach maturity where the alpha and beta acids and oils reach the levels that are ideal for brewing. In season, the plant breaks dormancy in April and utilizing its bines, will grow vertically until the summer solstice. Immediately after the solstice, the plants develop side arms. In mid July, the hop flowers or cones start developing. Mid August to mid September is harvest time for most varieties.
To harvest hops, the bines (along with the twine it’s growing on) are cut at the top of the trellis and about three feet from the ground. The bines are loaded on a trailer and taken to a harvesting unit to separate the cones from the other parts of the plant. “We rented a Hops Harvester this year,” said Anthony. “which through a series of fingers, first strips the leaves and the cones from the vine. It then sends the leaves and cones on a conveyor system to separate the cones from the leaves. After this is complete, the hops need to be dried to about 10 percent moisture, pelletized, and then packaged in nitrogen flush mylar insulated packaging.”
Anthony has done a little bit of home brewing of craft beer here and there.
Live Wire Hops is currently providing hops for the recently opened Hairy Cow Brewery in Byron. Anthony grew up in the same parish as Nora, the Front of House Manager at Hairy Cow Brewery. She introduced Anthony and Brian to Todd and Jim and Jon, the Head Brewer, last year.
“We feel so fortunate to have gotten to know them and the entire Hairy Cow Brewing team. They are just genuinely good people who we love doing business with. And they have a beautiful brewery serving delicious beer and brick oven pizzas. They’re doing it the right way and we hope we can continue to serve them into the foreseeable future,” said Anthony.
The beer they currently have on tap at Hairy Cow Brewery, that is made with Live Wire Hops, is the American Hairy. It’s an American IPA that is super approachable and smooth and has been “dry hopped” with their Crystals.
They are not actually in contract with any brewery yet but they are also doing business with Prairie Street in Rockford. They just announced on Jan. 31 that their Prairie Street IPA is now brewed with Live Wire Hops Cascades. It’s a bold and delicious IPA with piney and resiny notes.
“And we feel the same way about the Prairie Street guys as we do with Hairy Cow. They’re the kind of people you want to be around and do business with. And there are other breweries in the works. Hopefully more to come on this in 2019,” said Brian
Growing hops is a lot of hard work and dedication but cousins Anthony and Brian have thoroughly enjoyed the journey thus far. They cannot thank our community enough for all of the interest and support!