Sampling the Flavors of Benton County

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Harvest is the perfect season to check out the Hops Capital of Minnesota

Beer lovers: now is the perfect time to visit Benton County. This area has fast become the Hops Capital of Minnesota, and harvest is the ideal season to check it out. That’s because brewers are able to use fresh hops straight off the vine, creating unique flavors unlike any others you’ve tasted before.

The CEO of Mighty Axe Hops, Eric Sannerud, says wet hops make all the difference when crafting delicious, savory beers. “Wet hops are a more delicate, more herbal experience. It’s as close as you can get to smelling the hops out in the field.”

And he would know. Mighty Axe Hops has been the driving force behind Benton County’s exponential growth in the hops industry.

A Return to Minnesota’s Roots

Beer brewing has a long history in central Minnesota. German immigrants settled in Minnesota in huge numbers during the 1800s, bringing their knowledge of craft beer to the region. However, Prohibition put a halt to the expansion. Breweries were forced to shut down, and for several decades the practice struggled to regain any kind of traction.

That has all changed within the past few years.  In 2015, a handful of farmers were growing hops on only about 20 acres of land. By 2016, an estimated 73 acres were cultivated for the crop.

Then came Mighty Axe Hops. Young entrepreneurs Sannerud and Ben Boo more than doubled the hops production in the Benton County area. Their operation is larger than all of the other hops farms in the state combined.  

A Meteoric Success in the Craft Beer World

Craft beer has skyrocketed in popularity in recent years, creating a hot market for local ingredients. “There’s a new craft brewery popping up everywhere it seems,” explained John Uphoff, the executive director of the Benton Economic Partnership.

“The owners at Mighty Axe Hops saw an opportunity and jumped on it. Before them, there weren’t any other large-scale hops farms in the area. A lot of brewers had to get their hops from farmers in the Pacific Northwest. But now, local and regional brewers can source their produce locally thanks to Mighty Axe. It’s a big business boom.”

Sannerud said that Benton County’s central location was a key factor when deciding where to launch the company.  “We are midway between Duluth and Minneapolis, which are the two biggest craft brewery locations in the state. We’re also just two hours from Chicago. It’s very easy to reach all of our clients.”

Looking Ahead to Future Expansion

Uphoff explained that he’d like to see the hops industry expand even further in Benton County, and one day compete with the Pacific Northwest for dominance.  It’s estimated that 75 percent of the hops grown in the United States comes from eastern Washington State, in the Yakima Valley.

“About 70 percent of Benton County’s land mass is agricultural, and ideal for farming. There’s a huge opportunity for growth here,” Uphoff said. “Plus, Mighty Axe has expressed interest in helping out with that. They even have access to a Grower’s Guide on their website.”

Take the Tour

During harvest season, visitors and locals alike can partake in the Minnesota Fresh Tour. Participants are given passports that list all of the different flavors available at various breweries. All of them will feature beers brewed with fresh, wet hops that you can taste only during this time of year. The tour lasts through October 31. One of the breweries on the list belongs to Mighty Axe Hops. You can check out the beers they are offering here.

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