Fort Wayne Startup Creates ‘Hopportunity’ for Microbreweries

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The hops growing system will be shipped to customers in a single box for about $600. The hops growing system will be shipped to customers in a single box for about $600.

An innovation is brewing in Fort Wayne for craft beer businesses or even hobbyists making their ale at home. Two companies are combining their expertise to create a “kit” to grow hops at home or on small acreage. The joint venture, Trellis Growing Solutions, says the kit will help microbreweries grow their own hops—which was nearly impossible before—and hobbyists have their own crop at home. With plans to be open for business in the fall, the two entrepreneurs are raising a glass to helping craft brewers take control of their crop, which is the beginning of every brew.

Richard Barnes, one of the co-founders of Trellis Growing Solutions, says the vast majority of hops are grown out West—mostly in the state of Washington. While many microbreweries want control from start to finish, they’ve had to source their hops from giant commercial operations, leaving little room for creativity.

But brewers’ hands are tied, because hops are notoriously hard to grow, explains Barnes. Establishing the specialty crop is “quite expensive” per acre; hops are grown on trellis systems up to 20 feet tall and demand expensive lift equipment for plant maintenance, such as applying fungicides or insecticides. Barnes says, “it’s hard to justify economically if you’re going to have just a few acres.”

But Barnes is savvy with specialty crops; his Fort Wayne company, Trellis Growing Systems, has been helping large commercial operations throughout the U.S. grow berries on trellis systems since 2007. His wisdom is the foundation of the IBEX Hops Growing System that will launch this fall. The low trellis system is about 12 feet tall and rotates, so growers can reach each hop without special equipment.

“You can bring the hop vines down near the ground, where it’s practical to maintain the hops, whether you’re spraying them, inspecting them for pests or harvesting,” says Barnes. “The cost of entry is much lower, which enables smaller growers to establish a planting. That’s where we see the sweet spot for our product; it’s not to put in huge acreage.”

But the trellis system is only half of the equation. Barnes has been using products made by Fort Wayne-based Biodyne USA for nearly two years to grow his berries. The environmental biotechnology company makes bio-stimulants that use beneficial microbes to promote plant growth. The two local companies had a mutual interest in each other’s business, and the idea to combine expertise to develop the IBEX Hops Growing System soon took root.

Biodyne USA President Gil Farley describes the joint venture as a “perfect match”; while Trellis Growing Systems designed the hops trellis, Biodyne created the “nutritional component to support the growing plant as it matures to yield hops.” In the most basic terms, Farley likens the technology to Scotts 4 Step Program for lawn care—but for hops.

“Think of organic fertilizer that you apply—it’s all organically-based materials. Step one, for example, is a bio-stimulant to help the crop get off to a good start,” says Farley. “And at phase two, you’d have a blend to get the plant through the various stages of the middle ground. The third step would be fruiting, and the last step would be when you’re ready to harvest.”

The trellis plus the soil science component comprise the IBEX Hops Growing System, which is named after the wild mountain goats known for incredible climbing skills: “like the hop vines on our trellis,” says Barnes. The kit will sell for about $600 and arrive in a single box, containing everything needed to grow a 30-foot stretch of hops.

“There seems to be a desire from craft brewers to be able to source locally, which would include hops if they could, and also to get the varieties that they desire,” says Barnes. “There are well over 200 varieties of hops, and they all have their unique aroma or bittering profile. There’s a lot of interest from small growers to work hand-in-hand with their customer—the craft brewer—by custom growing for them.”

Eight beta testers from New York to Florida are using the system now, including Crazy Horse Hops, LLC in Knightstown. The startup is continuing to tweak its trellis system through a U.S. Department of Agriculture Small Business Innovation Research Phase 2 grant.

“[The craft beer] movement and what’s it’s done for communities in the last decade or so—it’s a fun market to be in; there’s a lot of passion and interest,” says Barnes. “For us, the challenge of developing a product is exciting. Sales are important, obviously, but it’s one of those feel-good businesses. You’re helping people and making a living doing this.”

Farley says the IBEX Hops Growing System could open the door for traditional row crop farmers to allocate small sections of land for high-value specialty crops.
Farley says the joint venture between Trellis Growing Systems and Biodyne is an example of “one plus one equals three.”
Barnes says the philosophy behind the IBEX Hops Growing System is to help customers “through every step of their operation.”
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