As a certified-organic brewery, Boulder-based Asher Brewing Co. is often at the mercy at what the market can bear and has to source ingredients where they're available.
Asher acquires its grains from Vancouver, Wash., and its hops from Germany, New Zealand and parts of the United States.
"An organic brewery, people look to us for our carbon footprint and our sustainable practices," said Steven Turner, a co-founder of the not-yet 2-year-old brewery. "We would really love and be excited to someday be able to make an all-Colorado beer."
Other area craft brewers -- many that do not have to rely on landing the more exclusive organic ingredients -- share similar sentiments.
The founder of Longmont's Oskar Blues Brewery said there's a great deal of frustration in watching hops prices fluctuate by $21 per pound overnight and in practically being forced to buy Canadian barley because of a relatively complex Colorado market for the grain.
Those and other complications, however, could be easing as some change is brewing in the Colorado agriculture landscape.
Within the past three years, a number of small hop farms have popped up across the state; a couple of proprietors are working to open the Colorado barley market to smaller brewers; and others, such as Oskar Blues, have launched their own farms.
Many obstacles face the growth of Colorado and Boulder County's beer agriculture, but craft brewers, farmers and others say they're optimistic about the progress thus far.
"We really are excited about the infant industries in Colorado," Turner said. " ... We're a young infant brewer, so we're thinking we could grow with the local (agriculture) industry -- that we could grow it together."
When Oskar Blues founder Dale Katechis bought a farm in Longmont a few years back, he envisioned planting a hop field on the parcel of land just north of Haystack Mountain. The hops grown at the farm could supplement the craft beer cannery's specialty small-batch dried-hopped or fresh-hopped efforts, he thought.
Then came an e-mail on April 8 of last year from Geoffrey Hess, an alumnus of Colorado State University's Western Center for Integrated Resource Management. Hess, a horticulture sales craftsman at Monrovia Growers, was interested in launching a hop farm.
The two got to talking and expanded Katechis' original idea to develop a farm that not only could help vertically integrate the brewery, but also serve as one corner to a "triangle of sustainability" between it and the Longmont-based brewery and the company's two Boulder County restaurants.
"It's bringing some soul back out to that farm," Katechis said.
A little more than a year after that e-mail, Hess is overseeing the budding Hops & Heifers farm -- a property with a 2-acre hops field; three pastures for a cluster of Angus cattle; a small vegetable garden; and a growing list of potential additions.
"The story is continuing to develop," Hess said earlier this month, as he stood on a gravel path overlooking the 54-acre farm.
The intention behind Hops & Heifers is to build a sustainable farm system by utilizing the outflows of the brewery and restaurants to further inputs such as hops, beef, fruits and vegetables.
The Angus heifers and bulls eat feed supplemented with high-protein spent mash from the brewery. The peanut shells from Oskar Blues' Tasty Weasel Tap Room are composted to feed the soil. Hess is researching additional ways to use the wastewater from the brewery to irrigate the land.
Longer-term goals potentially involve having the farm serve as a means of educating the public about agriculture; incorporating barley; and hosting a Great American Beer Festival dinner in the middle of the hop field.
The farm earlier this month played host to the inaugural meeting of the Colorado Hop Growers Association.
A natural centerpiece of the farm, the 2-acre hop field boasts a 12-foot trellis system to support the growth of the nearly 2,000 hop plants. Eight weeks since their planting, the eight varieties of the fragrant brew bud have sprouted, their bines already climb the trellis system to an average height of about 3 feet.
The bines will continue their clockwise wrap during the coming months and individually produce anywhere from one to two pounds of hops per bine.
The output will not be enough to satisfy the brewery's needs in volume -- Oskar Blues produced more than 42,000 barrels of beer in 2010 -- and in form, as the hops would need to be pressed into pellets by a potentially costly machine. However, the Hops & Heifers' hops will help to bring some control to planned whole-hopped brews, Katechis said.
"There's no real way we would be able to supply all of the hops for (Oskar Blues)," Katechis said. "But now ... we're going to be able to use these hops for specialty beers."
The farmstead-to-brewery approach appears to be gaining momentum, say Katechis and others in the industry.
"The locally sourced ingredients are certainly on the rise for today's craft brewers," said Julia Herz, craft beer program director for the Boulder-based Brewers Association, a trade organization for the $7.6 billion craft brewing industry.
She noted both a new category at the 2011 Great American Beer Festival, "Indigenous Beer," and the launch of efforts such as "Hop Nouveau Day," an event to feature beer made with fresh whole hops that are harvested and used in the brewing process within 24 hours.
Randy Flores, a former hop farm manager who recently launched Colorado Hop Farm Services, has spent the past six months working to further the Hop Nouveau style and connect Colorado farmers with craft brewers.
Last week, Flores hosted a meeting at Denver's Falling Rock Taphouse under the premise of "you grow what they want, they want what you grow" as an effort to build the brewer-to-farmer relationship.
"We're trying to create more interest for the brewers and more business for the hop growers, give them an avenue," he said.
Such a partnership makes sense for both the growers and the brewers, but numerous challenges and variables persist.
"The biggest question the brewers have is 'Do you pellitize hops?' as 99 percent of brewing systems use hop pellets," he said of the process that breaks down the hop cone to pellets under a quarter-inch in size. "The big challenge now is there is not a farm or an entity here in Colorado pelletizing."
A pellitzer and related equipment could add more than $100,000 in costs, which might not be easily recoverable by a small, couple-acre operation, he said.
On the brewers' end, although some craft brewers and others have expressed interest in using Colorado hops on a broader scale, a lot of brewery operators are locked into multi-year hop contracts and brewing schedules, he added.
"They can't just walk away from a contract they've had with a company for 10 years ... they don't want to burn that bridge," he said.
Flores estimates that Colorado has more than 100 acres of hop farms, most of which came on board within the past three years.
Some driving factors behind the recent growth in hop acreage include work out of Colorado State University, the Colorado Department of Agriculture's Marketing Division and -- a slightly more tangential level -- concerted efforts by Boulder County to use county open space to house small farming operations.
"There's no grand new opportunity for agriculture; what we have to do is search out incremental gains, unique niches," said Timothy Larsen, a senior international marketing specialist for the Colorado Department of Agriculture.
While the hop plant might not ever replace a major crop in Colorado, it could present a viable opportunity for smaller farms to increase their profit per acre, he said.
And it appears that some Colorado brewers might pay a slight premium to get local and organic hops. Thirty-five percent of craft brewers surveyed in 2008 indicated they would pay 1 percent to 10 percent above market price for Colorado hops, according to CSU's Hops Project Update released in 2009.
The CSU project also found that Colorado, with its abundant sunshine and low humidity, showed "great promise" for hops-growing. The 2009 harvest showed a yield per bine ranging from just below 0.1 pounds to nearly 0.6 pounds for the 14 varieties studied.
Tess McFadden, a spokeswoman for Boulder Beer Co., said officials at the longtime Boulder brewery are keeping a close eye on how Colorado hops perform. The brewery has used some Western Slope hops for its wet-hopped Freshtrack beer and has had good success.
"It's just so small scale," she said. "I'm just kind of curious to see how it develops on a larger scale."
In addition to Hops & Heifers, Boulder County is home to a number of small hop farms, some of which have been planted on leased Boulder County open space, said David Bell, an agriculture resource manager for the county.
The demand and the acreage is there to develop commodities such as hops and barley, he said, but to grow the industry will take time.
"It's going to take the infrastructure that we don't quite have yet," he said.
Bell quickly made note of the county's 947 acres of barley, adding that most of it ends up in the hands of the Golden-based Coors brewery, which has a malting facility required to convert the grain into malt for brewing. What is not accepted for malt by Coors -- which last year launched the "99.8 percent Coloradan" ingredients Colorado Native lager -- will become a feed product and substantially reduce the value of the barley.
Until two years ago, craft brewers have had to go out of state or, sometimes, outside the country to obtain their malted barley, he said.
In 2009, Jason Cody, Wayne Cody and Bob Wall opened Colorado Malting Co. in Alamosa. Since that time, the San Luis Valley-based operation has grown from producing 2,000 pounds of malt per month to making about 20,000 pounds per month, Jason Cody said.
As of next month, Colorado Malting Co.'s producing will be at 40,000 pounds per month.
"We saw a demand in the industry with the way the microbrewing industry was growing," he said. " ... Most (breweries) source (barley and wheat) from the Midwest or even overseas, so there was some potential for some local products to be introduced to the marketplace."
Colorado Malting Co. supplies about 12 to 15 craft brewers per month and eight homebrewing stores, including Hop To It! Homebrew in Boulder. As of yet, Colorado Malting does not supply to a Boulder County craft brewer, he said.
Some efforts also are underway that could land a malting operation in Boulder County.
Dave Georgis, an operator of sustainable farm program Everybody Eats, has partnered with friend Eric Johnson to develop a Boulder County-based "micro malt house" to accommodate the smaller craft brewers.
Georgis, a mechanical engineer, said the operation currently is at a "garage-based" prototype scale, but he and Johnson have started homebrewing with the malt and also begun to connect with area craft brewers. If those talks progress, then the hope is to further scale the operation.
"We have a lot of people growing barley, we have a lot of local breweries, but nobody was connecting the two with the malt," Georgis said.