Indie Hops' shiny new $2 million hop-pelletizing plant in Hubbard is the most tangible evidence of CEO Jim Solberg's belief that it's time for the American craft brewers to move out of the shadow of the giants.
The plant has already proved that it can make hop pellets at 110 degrees and less -- 20 or 30 degrees cooler than current methods. The lower temperatures better preserve the delicate hop oils and aromas that craft brewers prize.
Hops are usually dried and baled after harvest in the fall and then sold as whole leaf, or processed into hop extract or pellets, which are hops that have been chopped and compressed into the size and shape of a pencil eraser. Pellets are easy to store and use, and produce more consistent results.
And now, Indie Hops' pellets will retain more of the volatile aromatics and aromas.
But there is a tradeoff: The plant runs slower than the pelletizing plants in Yakima -- about an acre an hour, Solberg said, or eight 200-pound bales of compressed hops. That fits in with the business plan devised a couple of years ago by Solberg and partner Roger Worthington, an Orange County attorney and longtime friend.
"We decided from the start to scale this to craft breweries and not the industrial brewers. Craft brewing has basically grown up on trickle-down from the mega brewers," such as AB InBev (Budweiser) and SABMiller, he said. "But craft brewers have come into their own."
Pelletizing is just part of the Indie Hops business plan, which aims to elevate Oregon's aroma hops to among the best in the world and provide the state with a processing and storage infrastructure that now exists mainly in Yakima. The U.S. grows about a quarter of the world's hops in Yakima, Oregon and Idaho. The 2008 crop was worth nearly $40 million to the state.
This is precisely the trend I was talking about in my recent Beeronomics post on economies of scale. This is an excellent example of external economies of scale: the fact that the craft beer industry as a whole has grown prompts or allows suppliers of ingredients to become more efficient and offer cheaper of better inputs which improves the costs and quality of all brewers. Pellets are easier to ship, store and use but craft brewer worry about loosing some flavor. Indie Hops has brought a new version that will allow craft brewers to be more efficient by using pellets but still retain the flavor that typifies their beer.
[Note: the picture is from The Oregonian's web page, but is unattributed]