Hops in Two Harbors: Couple grows beer ingredient on Stewart River
A few miles north of Two Harbors, perched on the banks of the Stewart River, there is a new farm. In 2012, its owners started growing climbing green crops on high-strung wires and, in true small town fashion, their neighbors started trickling in, parking in the driveway to inquire about the plants.
“What are you doing? What are those poles?” Lori Melton recalls them asking. She and her husband Ryan own the farm.
The crops in question? Hops, which are plants that are used as flavoring and bittering agents for beer. Craft brewing has a tight grip on the Arrowhead region, with around a half-dozen small-batch breweries making their homes in Duluth and Two Harbors’ own Castle Danger Brewery currently finishing up a major expansion.
But Ryan and Lori didn’t want to just make beer. Ryan, a former biology student and “natural gardener” according to Lori, has been growing hops for almost a decade.
“We’ve been growing the hops here for 8 or 9 years and they just seemed to grow so well, we thought we’d try it on a bigger scale,” he said.
So they traded in their backyard in the Lakeside neighborhood of Duluth for a 10-acre farm on the Stewart River. The Meltons, including their kids Kai, 8, and Micah, 2, officially moved on to the Lake County property last week.
“It’s deserving of our full-time attention, so we’re going to give it 100 percent,” Lori said.
They first planted hops in Two Harbors in 2012, but Ryan said it typically takes three years of attention before they produce a decent harvest. Last year, the land produced a small yield and they’re hoping for a more significant crop this fall. They’ve had meetings with local breweries, and four have expressed interest in buying the hops. Eventually, Ryan said they hope to turn it into a “pick-your-own” farm model for homebrewers.
Most domestic hops are grown in Washington, Idaho and Oregon. Those bigger farms feed large domestic breweries -- businesses that produce beers like Miller and Coors.
“There is no way to compete on that market. The scale is way too big,” Ryan said. “But they aren’t that good at the quality aroma hops.”
That is the Harbor Hops business plan -- quality, not quantity. Ryan said they are currently testing 20 types of hops on a half-acre of land to see which are most popular and which grow best. After a couple of years, he will prune that down to about a dozen varieties. The hops farm will never grow larger than a half-acre, though Ryan said they hope to grow different crops on the rest of their property.
Ryan and Lori are both from Rochester and moved to Duluth in 2002. Lori works in the communications department at the University of Minnesota Duluth and Ryan was an employee of the U.S. Forest Service until he resigned last week to focus on the farm. Moving to the Two Harbors farm is part of an effort to downsize, Ryan said.
“In the end, we were looking for a change to the lifestyle … looking to simplify and just give something else a try,” he said, calling it a “back-to-the-land thing.”
They jumped at the chance to buy the Stewart River property in 2011 after a deal that would have brought them back to Rochester fell through. Lori said she’s happy they’re staying in the Northland.
“It just seems to attract the right kinds of people to make it a craft beer mecca and there’s a real cooperative spirit among the brewers and beer-related businesses,” she said.
The cooperative spirit extends outside of brewing, too. This year, the fertilizer for the hops was a gift from another small business -- smelt guts from Lake Superior Fishing Company. It was a deal that materialized rinkside during Kai’s hockey season, as one of the owners has a son on Kai’s team. The entrepreneurs connected during long practices and games. It fits perfectly with Ryan’s goal to make the farm completely organic.
They hope to harvest the hops in August or September, meaning they could show up in local brews by this winter. The Meltons will then be able to enjoy the fruits of their labor in liquid form.
“We’ve always liked beer,” Lori said. “That kind of came from birth.”