If you visited Denver Botanic Gardens’ Chatfield Farms in Littleton last summer, a wall of cascading hop bines growing up an 18-foot coconut-husk trellis system may have caught your eye. (Fact: The climbing or twining stem of a plant is actually called a “bine,” while a climbing plant of the grape or pea family is known as a “vine.”) The vibrant green, climbing tendrils were the centerpiece of a hops education program—a collaboration between the Denver Botanic Gardens, Metropolitan State University Denver, and Tivoli Brewing—that almost didn’t come to life.
The idea of cultivating hops on an eighth acre of the Denver Botanic Gardens’ 700-acre sister site was born after a 2018 participant of the Veterans to Farmers program—a 21-week-long curriculum dedicated to training military veterans in diverse agricultural systems, technologies, and business practices—noticed a gap in hops production along the Front Range and pitched the idea of growing it on the property. But even after months of planning and research, the project didn’t seem practical. “It didn’t end up happening because the price tag was so high,” says Josie Hart, farm programs manager at Chatfield Farms.
But because so much of the required research had already been done, the Gardens changed its scope instead of scrapping the project. What if growing hops was more of an educational demonstration, not a business endeavor? Hart called Greg Hopper (yes, that’s really his name), the owner/grower of Hopster Hops, a four-acre hop yard located within the Bijou Basin, north of Peyton, Colorado, which is El Paso County’s only commercial hops growing operation.
Hart confessed her intimidation surrounding the project to Hopper, which stemmed from her fear of installing the seemingly complicated trellis system required to grow the plants. Because hops bines require more than 15 feet of vertical growing space, they require being trellised between large posts. For Hart, the thought of borrowing an auger to drill holes into the ground, standing up tree-size wooden poles without hitting power lines, and reinforcing the system to withstand strong winds was overwhelming.
“[Hart] contacted me and I said, ‘You know, it’s not a big deal. We could do it,’” says Hopper. With his tractor, auger, and four 22-foot ponderosa pines (cut from his own property), Hopper helped the farmers and veteran trainees at the Gardens plant 50 hops plants—the Multihead and the Neo1, chosen because they’re native to the Americas—and set up the entire trellis system in about four hours.
In September 2019, the hops were ready for harvest. The plants had grown unusually quickly for first-year hops, which typically take three to four years before they’re productive. And because no one had anticipated that the hops would cultivate so quickly, there were no plans to harvest or use the plants. Which is where Tivoli Brewing comes in.
Located at Metropolitan State University of Denver’s student union building, Tivoli Brewing has a long history in Denver: It was first established as Sigi’s Brewery in 1864 in the same location, prior to being acquired by John Good, who changed the name to Tivoli in 1901.
When Tivoli CEO Ken Hehir heard about the hops growing at Chatfield, he connected with Hart, sparking the partnership between the Gardens, Tivoli, and MSU. By mid-September, Hehir, several MSU brewing professors, and six brewing students joined Hart and Hopper at Chatfield Farms for harvest. Tivoli brewers wrote a recipe for a fresh-hopped beer (a big deal in the beer world during harvest months, but scarce in Colorado in comparison to the top hop-producing states of the Pacific Northwest) while the students, many of whom had never seen hops growing before, were beyond excited over the process. “You could just see all these lightbulbs going off for them,” Hart recalls. “It was great being able to provide that kind of hands-on experience—pulling the bines off the plant and getting the oil on their hands—and seeing how enthusiastic and excited they were getting.”
Both Hehir and Hart agree that one thing makes this project so special: the few number of players in the production chain. Within three hours, the hops had been harvested, carted to Tivoli’s pilot brewery at DIA, transferred to mesh bags, and dumped directly into tanks where they would ferment for a week.
The result? Seven kegs, or three and a half barrels, of a beautiful, fresh-hopped copper pale ale called Botanica.
Both Hehir and Hart agree that last year’s farm-to-fizz process was educational for everyone involved, and they’re thrilled to expand the project in 2020. Hart is excited to see the alums from the Veterans to Farmers program get more involved with cultivation of the hops, while Hehir looks forward to having more students from MSU’s brewing program involved in the project. Even better: Come fall, there will be a brand-new fresh-hop collaboration beer flowing from Tivoli’s taps.