Brewery owners harvest legacy hops to use to make local beer

Jason Stuart
Sunday, October 6, 2019
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Above: Justin Cross, co-owner of Cross Country Brewing, dries the legacy hops his family transplanted from his aunt’s home in Red Lodge to Justin’s backyard.

John Cross and his uncle Brian Cross harvest the hops by removing them from the bine.

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Jason Stuart photo

The Cross family – John, Justin and Lonnie – serve up beer at Cross Country Brewing over the weekend.

Water. Barley. Hops. Those are the only rightful ingredients for beer, according to the famed Bavarian “purity law” of 1516. The first two are plentiful and easy to come by here locally in Eastern Montana, but hops production is far more limited, with most production in the United States done in the Pacific Northwest, which means local brewers largely must purchase their hops from elsewhere. But a chance find at an old family home has given Glendive’s Cross Country Brewing a bountiful harvest of hops they intend to turn into a truly “home grown” beer.

They’re not sure what the result will be, but then again, some of the world’s best and most celebrated brews and spirits got their start by accident and happenstance.

“I have no idea what the hop characteristics are going to be,” said Cross Country master brewer John Cross. “We don’t have any idea what kind of hops it is.”

“But it’s got a good aroma,” added John’s father, brewery coowner Justin Cross.

This “hoppy” story began four years ago, when the Cross family was in Red Lodge visiting the home of Justin’s maternal aunt, Lillian, who Justin described as “a green thumb who planted everything.” While looking around the property, they noticed a large, green vine growing along the fence in the front yard.

“We noticed this green vine growing out front and my youngest son Elliot said, ‘Hey, I think that’s hops!’” Justin said.

The vine turned out indeed to be a hop bine. Being brewers, the Cross clan was delighted at the find, so they cut out a couple of sections of rootstock to bring back to Glendive with them, which they planted at Justin’s house here in town. It didn’t take long before the transplanted hops plant “took off,” John said. Four years later, the bine is doing quite well indeed.

“And now, it covers the whole back of our fence in the backyard,” Justin said. “They’re actually doing better here than they did in Red Lodge.”

The fact that the hops did so well here really isn’t that surprising, according to John. While most commercial hops production in the U.S. is done in the warmer, moister climes of Oregon and Washington, John said the climate and growing conditions here are not that dissimilar to major hop-producing areas in Germany. John said he has visited hop farms in Germany which sit at about the same latitude as Dawson County on high, dry plains where they are grown in dryland farming operations.

Justin further added that he remembers when people used to find “wild” hops bines growing up and down Beaver Creek around Wibaux, the hops plants having been brought and planted there by German immigrant homesteaders in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The point is, hops can do quite well here, so if you plant some in your garden or on your farm, chances are good they will take off and eventually produce hops, much to your and to the local brewers’ delight.

“They’re interesting, interesting plants,” Justin said.

This summer, the Cross’ hops bine produced for the first time, filling Justin’s backyard with the aromatic scent of freshly-grown hops. Of course actually harvesting the hops, and doing it correctly, was a totally new experience for the family.

“It’s one of those things you start and you learn really quickly that we’ve got a steep learning curve here,” John said.

“Of course, we’re neophytes at this,” Justin added.

Actually harvesting hops turns out to be no picnic. You’ve got just a 10-day window to make the harvest, John noted, and speed is of the essence to get the hops picked, sorted, vacuum-sealed and frozen to seal in their freshness before they begin to rot and die, which happens awfully fast.

“As soon as you take them off the vine, they start to die,” John said.

The difficulty of harvesting hops is not to be underestimated, they have learned.

“People who pick hops, they earn their pay,” Justin said.

The Cross family did, however, pick up on that learning curve quickly enough to come away with quite a nice hop harvest. In the end, they got just under 10 pounds of fresh hops.

Their plan for those nearly 10 pounds of locally-grown hops is to put them into a special “small batch” beer they will brew. John said he hopes to brew about four barrels of beer with the hops. Of course, not knowing exactly what kind of hops they have, they’re not sure what the outcome will be, but they look forward to trying it.

“We noticed this green vine growing out front and my youngest son Elliot said, ‘Hey, I think that’s hops!”
Justin Cross, co-owner of Cross Country Brewing

“We’ll see what happens. But that’s kind of the fun about it, to see what we can do,” John said. “My goal is to have a single-hop ale that’s a showcase of these local hops. It is an adventure and I’m excited to see how it’s going to turn out.”

While he may not know exactly what the beer they’ll get out these hops will be like, John does already have a name in mind for this limited-run brew. Lillian (and Justin’s mother’s) maiden name was Jerussi, so their idea is to make a play on words with that, since the hops they’ve grown came from Lillian’s house, and call the beer “Jabreussi.” Of course, they both joked, naming it “Jabrewski” might make more sense to others, but then that would change their Jerussi heritage from an Italian one into a Polish one, so that’s out of the question.

Ultimately, John and Justin said, they will eventually take some of the hops to the North Dakota State University research station in Williston to have them tested to find out exactly what kind of hops they are and their exact characteristics. For now, however, they’re simply looking forward to find out how the beer they brew with those hops turns out.

And if the vine at Justin’s house continues to spread, they can also look forward to brewing even larger batches of beer with those hops in the years to come.

“If the hop vines come back like they did this year ...,” John began.

“It’ll be bigger and better than ever,” Justin concluded.

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