On the other side of Pikes Peak, past Cripple Creek and down a bumpy dirt road lies Marigold Valley Hops run by long-time Cripple Creek-area residents Sandra and Jim Chapman.
The Chapmans can trace their roots in the area back to 1921, where Jim’s father pieced their ranch together and set about raising cattle for years. Fast forward to 2017 and Jim is continuing the tradition, but now the ranch is in the middle of a transition from cattle to hops.
The ranch is situated on the site of Marigold, an old town where old stagecoaches used to stop between Canon City and Cripple Creek.
After driving through Cripple Creek, we take a right onto Shelf Road and weave our way down the bumpy road towards the Chapman’s ranch. We first arrived at the barn, where the crew was processing a truck load of hops. There was an overwhelming smell of fresh hops in the air. After saddling up into one of the ranch’s utility vehicles, the Chapmans led us further into the property, across a creek that had jumped its banks due to increased rainfall, through a field of sunflowers and down to the hops.
Coming over a hill on a dusty two track road, the hops appear out of nowhere, rising up to their full height as we inch closer. Twenty foot tall bines climb from the ground up to tightly strung wires. Everything is surrounded by green, with rows and rows of hops just waiting for harvest.
The Chapmans are growing mostly Cascade, but Chinook, Centennial and Crystal varietals are in there as well. The field is irrigated with runoff from Pikes Peak, and the hops are growing amazingly.
Jim explains that right now, they’re wasting some of the hops potential because the rows are spaced 10 feet apart—research on the Western slope has told them that stretching the rows to 16ft can help get the bottom four feet of the hops plant to produce cones. Such is the life of a farmer, always figuring out the next best way to increase the crop yield.
Jim and Sandra walked us through the hops, and then harvested a load for processing. The coconut hair rope is first cut a few feet off the ground, leaving the hops just hanging off the top wires.
Then slowly and systematically, Sandra drives as Jim stands in the flatbed of the truck, severing each hops strand and layering them on the bed. After about 60ft of work, the truck is piled high with hops.
2016 was the first sellable crop, but 2017 is Marigold’s biggest yet. Even with hops to spare, Marigold is finding it’s a process to get breweries to take notice. Interest is high across Colorado, but Marigold finds themselves competing against hops exchanges like the Lupulin Exchange, albeit with a fresher product. This year is the first year where they have all their ducks in a row, with alpha acid tests from last year and this year, plus samples of dried hops, this year’s fresh hops as well as pellets.
Paradox in Divide has been their best customers as of late, but Florence Brewing, Ute Pass and others in the area have also been using this year’s crop.
Weed management comes down to hoeing and pulling weeds, but organic pesticides are needed for all the aphids and mites that are attracted to hops.
“We like drinking beer, so we are really careful with what we put on them.”
One struggle they’ve found is there’s wild hops growing all over the valley, which can pollinate their hops plants and cause the hops cones to contain more seeds and less lupulin. The valley was settled long ago by the French, so the Chapmans think it’s more than likely that the wild hops were actually brought here.
One varietal of the wild hops, with a particularly large cone and great aromatics, is one the Chapmans are planning on isolating and growing in future years. It’ll be a slow process, as they’ll be growing them from seed, far away from the current hops field.
Growing and processing hops is hard work, with every strand being hand fed into the picker, then piled on a tarp and loaded into the dryer via large 30 gallon trash cans.
There’s three levels in the dryer, and once it’s full, they leave for the day and come back the next to empty it. They heat up the hops to around 110-120 degrees, hot enough to kill any bugs but not hot enough to hurt the lupulin inside each cone.
Once the hops get close to 8-10% humidity, they can be packaged into bales and sent to the Western Slope for pelletizing.
Hops represent the next chapter for this cattle farm. The soil is great and the sun is plentiful—this isn’t just a hobby for Marigold Valley Hops. They’ll be producing more and more hops with each coming year, in hopes to help local brewers source their ingredients closer to home.
A long term goal for Marigold is a tasting room where tourists and brewers can come taste beers made specifically with Marigold Valley Hops. As Cripple Creek and Victor move towards making Shelf Road more OHV friendly, the Chapmans are ready to capitalize on it.
The one thing the Chapmans need when it comes to harvesting all their hops: labor. We’ll be keeping close tabs on Marigold Valley in the coming months and years, so keep your eyes out if we announce a field day or two to help pick some hops next fall. We hope to help continue to share their story and help them pick some hops in the process.