Hopping to it

Local hops farm to break ground on new processing facility

By Megan Gosch
Wednesday, June 15, 2016

This week will see another step in the development of the expanding Minnesota craft brewing industry, but it won’t involve anything foamy.

Mighty Axe Hops will break ground on a new processing facility on its newly-acquired hops farm in Benton County. The $1.3 million steel-walled building will give the company the ability to process its hops into the pellets that brewers use as a key ingredient in their beer.

“The hops grow on strings on 18 foot tall trellises. When we harvest, we use a picker to get the hop blossom, which is called a cone,” explains Mighty Axe co-founder and CEO Eric Sannerud (who was also a Minnesota Business Young Entrepreneur last year). “That will go to the harvest facility and go into the dryer there. We remove the moisture, then bale them into 100 pound bales, then turn that into pellets.”

Sannerud, 25, and his 26-year-old partner, Mighty Axe COO Ben Boo, formed their company four years ago, shortly after they graduated from the University of Minnesota. For the past four years, they have grown and harvested hops on a 3 acre hopyard in Ham Lake, selling their product to several Minnesota breweries eager for the option of purchasing locally sourced ingredients.

For months, Sannerud and Boo were on the prowl, searching for farmland for an expansion. Earlier this summer, they closed on an 80 acre plot of cropland in Gilmanton Township, 20 miles north of St. Cloud in central Minnesota. With the expansion of the acreage, their farm became the biggest in the state devoted to the production of hops.

The state-of-the-art processing facility will be built onsite, allowing Mighty Axe Hops to operate a one-stop operation, from seedlings to the finished pellet, which will be packaged into 11-pound (5 kg) boxes.

“The building is our biggest outlay of cash. We are importing equipment from Germany that the construction company will build around; there’s nothing like this in Minnesota. We anticipate it will be fully functional by next year,” says Boo. “This system is in line with the standards that brewers are used to working with. This step forward lets us render the harvested hop into a form and a quality that brewers value.”

Mighty Axe is financed with a $4.6 million mixture of a cash from an investment partner and financing from Bremer Bank.

“When we are at our full production, we project that we will produce 150,000 pounds of hops every year,” says Boo, who studied horticulture at the U. “We will have contracts with breweries before the hops are harvested. They are very finicky about what they want, and we can deliver. It’s not a risk.”

Hops, often called the spice of beer, are a perennial plant. As an ingredient, hops add bitterness, flavor and aroma to the finished fermented liquid. Mighty Axe has begun selling its hops to a few local breweries, and expect to be able to market their product to Minnesota brewers who will value a locally grown ingredient.

“We’re big baseball fans, and we say that our 3 acre farm in Ham Lake has been our spring training, where we tested varieties and growing methods,” says Sannerud. “Now we’re ready for the big leagues.”

Rendering of new Mighty Axe facility in Gilmanton Township, north of St. Cloud.