Rise of microbreweries brings opportunity for retired chemistry teacher
EVANSVILLE--The explosion of microbreweries and increase in hops growers have stirred up a new business for a retired Evansville chemistry teacher.
Rick Cole is putting his 25 years of home-brewing experience and background as a chemist to use by providing chemical analysis for regional hop growers and beer brewers in the Midwest.
The idea started when former student Brendan Deneen, owner of Ore-ganic Wisconsin Hops, explained to him the need for a Midwest lab to test hops. Deneen talked Cole into it because few labs exist, they said.
The existing testing companies are mainly in Oregon and Washington states, they said.
“There just wasn't a hop-growing potential in the Midwest, so there weren't any labs set up in the Midwest,” Cole said. “Now that there's all these farmers growing custom crops of hops in the area, there's a need for someone to do the testing.”
Midwest Hop and Beer Analysis was born in a renovated former auto shop on Water Street in Evansville.
It's hard for existing labs to keep up with demand, said Michael Bergman of Green Bay, publisher of MidwestMicroBrews, which compiles information and directories on the industry.
“We need people like (Cole) to start businesses like this,” he said.
Most Wisconsin craft brewers use hops from out of state or abroad, and those hops are usually already tested by the growers, said Mark Garthwaite, executive director of Wisconsin Brewers Guild.
But local is important to a lot of people, which explains the proliferation of craft breweries, he said. More local brewers are using local producers, and most of the hops grown in Wisconsin probably is staying here, he said.
Hops is the primary flavoring and preservative ingredient in beer. Close to 50 varieties of hops exist, with about 17 that are popular with home and craft brewers. Deneen, for example, is growing 14 varieties on about an acre of land in Oregon.
Cole is targeting hop growers and hop-growing co-ops to test hops for the contents of alpha acid, beta acid, moisture, essential oils and the storage index. The alpha acids are important because they give beer its bitterness.
Each variety of hops has different percentages of alpha acids, Cole said.
“If you're going to be brewing a real bitter India pale ale kind of beer, you want lots of this bittering compound,” he said. “If you're going to be brewing a light lager or ale, you don't want all that bitter in it.
“So the brewer has to choose the hops varieties, and they have to know the percent of the weight that's alpha acid, so they can find out how much is going to end up in the final product.”
Without that, there is no consistency, Deneen said.
“Miller Lite couldn't make Miller Lite,” he said. “They have to know exactly what's in it.”
Large brewers have on-site labs with their own chemists, Cole said, but many craft brewers can't afford to have resident chemists do their quality control.
“A lot of them have just been going by 'this recipe worked last time, we'll do it again,' and they end up with a little variation,” Cole said. “Some of the beer drinkers are sensitive enough to taste the difference.”
Cole's testing for this harvest season ranges from $25 to $35.
Once he's through the harvest season, Cole offers beer testing for breweries. He can test the beer after it's brewed for bitterness, alcohol content, completion of fermentation, calorie content and color and foam head retention characteristics.
Cole has set up a website and Facebook page and advertised within the brewing community, but he's not sure what to expect.
“I have no idea. I'm scared to death,” he said, laughing. “I keep getting people saying, 'Thank god there's somewhere I can take my hops to get testing.'”
But he's still waiting for his first customers.
Bergman said Cole's business would be a great addition that is “so needed.”
“I'm sure the brewers across Wisconsin and the brewers across the Midwest will be cheering to have him open up,” he said.
The craft brew industry has been growing rapidly, and a shortage of hops in recent years created many new Wisconsin growers. The craft brew industry had nearly a $900 million economic impact in Wisconsin in 2012, according to the Brewers Association.
Wisconsin ranked 10th in 2013 in craft breweries with 90, according to the Brewers Association, with 2.2 breweries per 100,000 adults aged 21 and over.
Consumers have realized beer can be a luxury item, unlike wine, where the price difference between a good and bad bottle is dramatic, Bergman said.
“In beer, it isn't that big of a difference,” he said. “You can treat yourself for just a little bit more.”