Craft beer market exploding
By Jim Nowlan
Osceola natives Lance and Zach Shaner have started growing hops to feed the exploding national craft beer market. At full production in a couple of years, they hope to reap as much as $15,000-18,000 an acre from their crop.
But it’s tough growing hops.
“I swear it’s easier farming a thousand acres of corn and beans than it is to grow an acre of hops,” says Zach, who tends to the acre of hops under cultivation at the Tim and Sue Shaner home place just east of Osceola.
Lance is quick to add that the brothers and their dad Tim are in the learning stage now, and that the going will be easier once they are up and running.
You can’t miss the hops operation from the road, as the plants are growing straight up toward a 20 feet height, curling upward on coir twine, held up by sturdy wood posts.
Yet the potential is terrific, says Lance, now of suburban Park Ridge, northwest of Chicago.
“There are 5,000 craft beer brewers across the country, up from 1,500 just a few years ago,” says Lance, “and the growth keeps coming.”
Lance should know. Since 2013, Lance has been owner of Omega Yeast Labs, a Chicago-based propagator of liquid yeast that serves 600 commercial craft brewers across the country.
“I am plugged into the industry,” says self-confident Lance, “and they want local product, and Stark County is sure ‘local’ to Chicago.”
The News sat down with the two young entrepreneurs and Dad Tim this past week at a picnic table in sight of the vertical hops operation, to talk about making money in the craft beer market.
The brothers complement one another well for their enterprise, called Shaner Brothers Hops.
Lance graduated from Stark County High in 1997 and earned a bachelor’s degree in microbiology at the University of Illinois. He went on to notch a PhD in “micro” at the University of Texas Health Sciences Center in Houston and then a law degree at the University of Houston. More degrees than you can shake a stick at.
Lance works from his Chicago yeast business, which has doubled in revenue every 10-12 months since he started it four years ago, and his goal is to continue doubling the business annually until at least the end of the decade.
Lance, the scientist, explains that yeast is propagated from malt extract and hops. Yeast are unicellular fungi that has been converting sugar into alcohol for millennia.
“Basically, we brew beer,” says Lance, “then throw it away after the yeast are done growing.” (What a waste, this beer drinker is thinking, as we chat at the picnic table.)
There are hundreds of varieties of yeasts, and that is where Lance’s education is put to use in the laboratories at Omega Yeast. Yet because of the rapid growth of his business, Lance says he now spends most of his time in the office and on the phone.
Yeast is a thick, whitish goop, says Lance, which is shipped cold from the lab overnight to customers all over the country.
Hops are a natural sidekick to yeast, as both are central to the beer business.
And Zach is the natural partner for suburbanite Lance, as Zach is the farmer who is growing the hops back home.
Zach graduated from Stark County High in 1999 and also has an associate’s degree from the excellent ag production program at Black Hawk East. He works for Shafer Farms, of Wyoming.
After work each day, he comes back to the home place to weed and spray fungicide to ward off such plant diseases as downy mildew, a pesky fungus-like organism that spreads via air-borne spores.
“I have two full-time jobs,” Zach declares, a smile poking through his brown beard.
Hops a relatively new crop in Illinois
The brothers explain that most hops are grown near the West Coast—Oregon, Idaho, Washington. Yet brewers serving the 11 million people in the metro-Chicago region want local product.
“We’re growing Triple Pearl and Yakima Gold hops, both aroma varieties,” says Lance. “These are relatively new varieties, and we hope to get a premium for them.” There are “aroma” and “bittering” varieties of hops, both important to creating flavorful, hoppy India Pale Ales (IPAs) and other brews.
Although craft brewers make up only about 12 percent of the beer market—the share is growing—these brewers use two-thirds of all hops. These brewers use one to three pounds of dry hops per barrel. A mature hops plant yields up to one to three pounds of dry hops, thus enough for a barrel of beer.
Lance and Zach have planted 1,100 plants on their one-acre starter plot.
Hops plants grow upward as “bines,” not vines, that is, the plants curl around twine, rather than attach to it, as vines do.
The flower cones from the rough, scratchy, dark green plant are harvested in August, then quickly dried from 70 percent or so moisture to about 6-7 percent, explains Zach. The dried hops cones are then squeezed into pellets and ready to go to market.
Lance and his wife Meredith, originally from Wheaton, met in college. They and their two daughters live in Park Ridge, a close-in suburb to Chicago. Zach lives in Kewanee.