Julie Diers: She formed Hippie Chicks Hops into a ‘Cinderella Story’
Portrait 2011 — Volume 3: Up-and-Comers
This is a story about a go-getter school marm who bought a little Palisade farm and started to grow beer — or at least one of the ingredients for beer: hops. She had lots of fun friends — and they liked to work on the farm, helping her plant and harvest her Cascade and Chinook hops. In gratitude, the school marm named her budding company after them — Hippie Chicks Hops — and if you think they lived happily ever after, you’re right.
“It’s such a Cinderella story,” said Julie Diers, 47, who is a bubbly reading specialist at Clifton Elementary School.
The very first harvest, Hippie Chicks Hops secured a three-year contract with Odell Brewing Co. of Fort Collins, makers of handcrafted beers 90 Shilling Ale, Easy Street Wheat and Isolation Ale, among others.
Odell brewers like to visit artisan farms, Diers explained, so when two Subarus full of Odell employees were on a Western Slope tour of hop yards last August, all the Hippie Chicks dressed up in sundresses and hosted a chicken and corn-on-the-cob barbecue, followed by a trip to the Palisade Brewing Co.
Brewer Joe Mohrfeld of Odell blogged about the experience:
“Lastly, we visited the new kid on the block … or rather a new school teacher on the block … Hippie Chicks Organic Hop Farm in Palisade. Julie, with the help of her volunteer Hippie Chicks, is in her first year and is already off to a beautiful start. We were so impressed with her operation that we decided to set up our sleeping bags right in her field and wake up amidst the hops to Palisade’s ‘Million Dollar Breeze.’ ”
While it’s unusual that Diers had such success so soon, it does speak to both hops-farming as a growing industry in supplying Colorado’s 110 microbreweries, and to Diers’ resolve.
“There’s certainly something to be said for determination,” she said.
Ron Godin, area agronomist for the Colorado State University Extension Service in the Delta office, said it was more than that: The school teacher did her homework.
“The folks at Odell realized, when they walked into her hop yard, you can see the quality of the hops for the care she had given them,” Godin said.
Back to where our heroine’s hops story begins.
When Diers set her mind to owning a small farm for some additional income, she searched a year before she found just the right place, on G 4/10 Road. It had a carriage house, a garden spot, a big red barn and an alfalfa field.
Oh, and a house. She decided she wanted the place before she even turned a door knob on the 1909 home.
The whole tableau was so Norman Rockwell, Diers knew it was right for her.
“It was just as precious as it could be,” Diers said.
The biology major/chemistry minor had grown grapes commercially before, but she wanted the potential of a better return, so two things happened that set her on the path to being a hops grower:
1. She saw a hops vine growing on the patio of Kannah Creek Brewery and charged right up and asked the brewer if he’d buy hops from her if she grew them. He said yes.
2. A neighbor advised her: “You know what you should do with this place? You oughta grow hops.”
So she read everything she could find about growing organic hops. She learned that hops, which are the flowers on the hops vines and look a little like pine cones, contain acids and oils that impart bitterness, flavor and preservative qualities to beer.
In the United States hops mainly are grown in the Pacific Northwest, but with the popularity of microbrews, the hop market no longer is limited to a handful of large, commercial breweries. Hops yards are springing up in the Midwest, in Utah, Colorado and elsewhere. These hops pioneers are learning which varieties grow best in their climates, and which pests and diseases might be a problem.
Diers found a mentor in Glen Fuller of Rising Sun Farms in Paonia, the state’s first commercial organic hops grower, now in his fourth year of production. She volunteered on his farm and learned the ropes, literally — hops are trained on twine and grow on a trellis system some 18 feet high.
“He’s so generous with the start-ups,” Diers said of Fuller.
Then Godin, —“the nicest person on the face of the planet,” said Diers — suggested successful varieties and helped her lay out her own 1 1/2-acre hop yard. Godin some 10 years ago took an interest in hops and has become the unofficial epicenter of hops-growing in the state.
In fact, there is a Colorado Hops Growers Association forming. A first meet-and-greet meeting took place in January at Palisade Organic Hops Farm on G Road. The 3-acre farm is owned by David and Karen Pinnt. They’re in their second year of production.
By combining various growers’ efforts, they could save on supply shipping costs, seek research grants and process crops more efficiently, Karen Pinnt said.
And also, “use each others’ knowledge and help each other out.”
To illustrate just how new hops growing is, Pinnt said that when they were standing up the poles for their hop yard, they were the subject of speculation.
“We had so many people curious and we had them stopping by and ask us if we were building storage sheds, putting in grapes or if we were a training ground for linemen.”
For her hop yard, Diers had delivered 77, 44-long, beetle-kill pine poles. They had to be cut in half with a chain saw, then the bottom 4 1/2 feet stripped of bark and singed in order to delay rot once in the ground. There was augering, wire stringing and weeding — lots of weeding — to be done.
Hippie Chicks to the rescue.
Fellow teacher and longtime friend Nicolette Laurita is in the Hippie Chicks inner circle. She’s been there “from the beginning,” Diers said. Other Chicks include Hannah Odneal, Nancy Bartlett, Sophia Watchman, Barb Clark, Vivian Archuleta and daughter Abigail Diers.
Boyfriend Russ Austin, sons Lucas and Patrick Diers, and intern Aaron Kinzig round out the Hippie Dudes, who provide brute strength and “mechanical skills,” Diers said. What does it take to get a dozen or so of your closest friends to give up evenings and weekends to help with your hop yard?
“It’s totally the camaraderie,” Odneal said. “And the beer — the good beer.”
Laurita pointed out Mount Garfield’s sculpted visage to the north, the blue shoulders of Grand Mesa to the east and the apricot and apple orchards on either side.
“There could be a lot worse place to work,” she said.
And the work is starting all over. Already they’ve spread 15 tons of composted chicken manure — “with a wheelbarrow and a shovel,” said Diers — removed old growth and recut furrows.
Soon it will be time to cut back the first growth, restring twine, then train new bines.
There will be regular meetings of the Hippie Chicks, with agendas and pop quizzes. Diers is, after all a teacher.
Besides, she wants people to know there’s some substance behind the spaghetti straps.
“It’s just so fun to learn something new,” Diers said. “We actually have well-grown hops.”