With a surname like his, perhaps it was fait accompli that Greg Hopper would flee a life in IT for a field where he could really dig in.
Or, maybe, it was more about good timing.
“My company did a massive cutback about three years ago, and rather than keep looking for a job, I thought I would like to try to do something that I wanted to try to do,” Hopper said.
That thing, naturally, was hops.
Hopper had been growing the citrussy, flowering weeds at his Monument home for about a year and thought the backyard plot might work, lucratively, on a larger scale.
History and the brewing industry, however, said “probably not.”
Last spring, when Hopper attended the Craft Brewers Conference as a delegate for U.S. Hop Growers of America, he said the head procurer from Coors Brewing Co. stopped by the booth and was intrigued by the idea of a Colorado Springs-area hop grower trying to make a commercial go of it. A meeting was arranged at Coors’ Golden headquarters with the company’s hops buyer, who regretfully informed the freshman farmer his endeavor was likely a bust.
“He said they researched it and it grows better over on the West Slope. They said it wasn’t viable to grow it on the Front Range,” Hopper said.
Eighteen months later, he hosted an out-of-town grower for a tour of Hopster Hops.
“He came out yesterday and looked at this and was amazed,” said Hopper in late August, gazing over 2½ miles of mostly cleared rows of Centennial, Cascade, Comet and native Neomexicanus hops. “He didn’t think it was possible.”
Clearly, the naysayers were wrong.
El Paso County’s only commercial hops farm recently wrapped its first (big) harvest season on four acres of Hopper’s 110-acre organic farm and forest property in Peyton. His crops are (or will be) featured in brews at Local Relic in the Springs, Reservoir Brewing in Pueblo and, later this month, the Town of Elizabeth Hopfest, a juried beer festival where entrants set out to create their best suds using two pounds of pelletized Hopster Hops.
Hopper said that despite what he’d been told, the Front Range does have a number of farmers who grow and sell the perennial plants whose buds, basically, are what makes beer taste like beer.
“Along the Front Range, altogether, there’s probably 10, but most of them are in the Longmont, Fort Collins and Greeley areas ... and there’s one over in Teller County,” he said.
While Hopper concedes the southern Front Range is less hospitable to such horticulture on a grand scale, his farm is located “in a little microclimate,” the Bijou Basin Headwaters.
“Normally the weather is a little calmer, and that big bluff there does give protection in the winter from some of the harshest stuff,” he said.
The knack also might lie in the farm’s fertile and long-fallow soil.
“This land hasn’t been farmed in probably over 50 years. When I went to put these beds in, I found a couple mule shoes,” said Hopper, who also began his organic farming venture by testing the microclimate’s charms on other crops, including corn, potatoes and a variety of fruits.
“We’re working with elderberries and cherries, which seem to grow really well, and peaches and apples,” he said. “We have about 100 asparagus plants. A chef up in Denver asked if we could grow it, so we put them in and got a good crop. Next year we’ll probably put in 1,000 plants for farm-to-table restaurants.”
Hopper, who’s 62, began his career in tech in the mid-1990s, building web pages and “doing countless hours of coding,” and said that the drastic change of pace that came with a farming lifestyle has been good for his soul — and body. He’s lost 30 pounds since the switch.
“This is so much better, even weeding in the morning,” he said. “Seeing the birds. It gives you a chance to listen to music or just meditate. Yeah, this is just cool.”
For more about hops growing in El Paso County, check out Pikes Pub in Saturday’s Home and Garden section.