Mungo's hop farm

Once the hops buds reach the cooling floor, the moisture content is monitored. The content should be 9% when the crop is baled and sent to the pelletizer. 

If you drive by the Misty Mountain Hop Farm on Colorado 348, west of Olathe, you see a big electrical control panel on the southwest corner of the field. It looks like something out of a refinery or a NASA installation. But what you are looking at is the irrigation control panel for the Misty Mountain hops vines. It is one of the innovations that Ron Munger brought to the Western Slope hops industry.

Michael A. Cox

Drip irrigation is slowly making a change in Western Slope agriculture where gravity feed crop watering has been a way of life for more than a century.

Over the early years of his project, Munger used furrows and gated pipes but it seemed that drip irrigation, like David Harold was doing, made more sense. Harold, of the “Olathe Sweet” sweet corn Harolds, has been experimenting and using drip variations for some time.

The Misty Mountain system now consists of a long run of plastic pipe on each row of the field with an emitter for each hops vine. That big control panel out on the highway is the brain that gets the water to the crops on time and in the right amount.

“It was like night and day,” Munger said. He cut his water use significantly with the system that took him six years to develop with the help of Harold and others. Now, it’s fine-tuned and working well. It is just one of the innovations and inventions Mungo worked through at Misty Mountain.

Munger, a San Diego native, left his lucrative steel fabrication career in the Golden State and traded it for 30 acres of a different kind of California real estate, a place on California Mesa in Colorado, where he started growing hops just over a decade ago.

“The craft brewing explosion had just gone off and hops looked like a good investment,” Mungo said. He said that he read everything about hops that he could find, talked to other hops growers and to people who might buy his crop.

He jumped in with both feet. He said he could not imagine starting with a tiny plot. He went with 30 acres, which made him the biggest on the slope at the time. From Fruita to Colona, there are about a dozen hops growers of varying sizes.

Now, Munger sells everything he grows, most of it to AC Golden, the brewers of a line of beers called Colorado Native. He sells the rest to Palisade Brewery and Colorado Boy Pizzeria and Brewery. Getting where he is today was an adventure and a bit atypical when it comes to putting 45,000 pounds of hops on the market every year.

First, it was those poles. Typically, a hops vineyard consists of rows of wooden poles, like utility poles, that hold up a network of wire from which are hung the hemp or sisal cord that the hops vines climb as they grow.

“I had been a steel fabricator and welder my whole life,” Mungo said. “So, I went with steel poles that never rot and need replacement.”

Munger and a couple of helpers strung the top cables and planted the guy wire anchors themselves. The guy wires keep the poles angled correctly, so that the top wires won’t droop under the weight of the crop.

Part two of a successful hops operation is the processing. That includes cutting down the vines at harvest, threshing the vines to separate the buds from the rest of the plant, drying the buds to nine percent moisture and then pelletizing them before shipping them off to the brewer.

Munger knew he couldn’t afford a fancy new harvester, so he did the next best thing. He first built a special rack and stand, mounted on the back of a 20-feet long crop trailer — out of steel of course. The top of the stand is fitted with a solid floor on which the vine cutter stands. The trailer is pulled by a small Kubota tractor at a walking pace.

Another Misty Mountain invention is the 12-inch irrigation pipe bumper on the front of the tractor that gently nudges the vines away from the wheels. The picker cuts the vine cords just under the supporting cable with a hand scythe and then drops the vine into the trailer. It takes just a few days to cut the whole 30 acres at Misty Mountain.

The next step involves a machine that is 25-feet long, 18-feet high and 10-feet wide.

The combine-like machine separates the vine and leaves from the hops buds. The buds come out one side and the rest goes out the other. A conveyor delivers buds to the dryer. Misty Mountain has two of them.

“Those machines are all manufactured in Germany and eastern Europe,” Munger said. The two that Misty Mountain owns are used and come from Germany. Mungo and his team coaxed them back into prime condition.

“I got lucky when I found those,” said Munger, who adds he got lucky about several things that have contributed to his success.

But the under story is that he is a relentless researcher and one heck of a shopper. He found an incredibly suited piece of land on the California Mesa. It has gravelly soil with good drainage, electricity and city water. He said he got lucky with that, but the number of parcels that he shopped was well into double digits before the choice was made.

As the harvest process continues, the buds come out of the dryer and go to a holding room where their moisture content is monitored to make sure it is 9%. Oh, that dryer? Munger built that as well.

Next, the hops are baled before going to Munger’s pelletizing and cold storage plant at another location in Delta. From there the pellets go to the breweries.

Mungo finds the whole hops farm thing fascinating. He loves experimenting and innovating. There are dozens of varieties of hops, each producing a unique taste and adding a special dimension to the beer in which they are used. Misty Mountain grows several types, including the popular Cascade species. Another variety that Munger has is called Zoso. Zoso is a variant of the classic Centennial Hops.

Before, Munger was having some trouble with some of his Centennial vines. Munger said he thought the plants were diseased. He dug them up and submitted them for testing. It turns out the plants were fine. What they were was a Centennial variant, quite different from the original. When the farm replanted the tested vines, the crop started showing unique characteristics, so they were kept separate during processing and given their own name — Zoso.

If you are a Led Zeppelin, fan you’ve heard the word before. The actual meaning remains a mystery but the Zeppelin Wiki offers the following explanation:

“The most recent fandom theory is that it symbolizes a near-death or Tantric sex experience to unify the worlds of the living and the dead, and thus to reveal the secrets of the universe.” While that offering may not be true, it is true that the Zoso hops have found favor with the AC Golden brew masters. They developed a beer with it called Zoso, which has been on tap at the Coors Brew Pub lounge. How cool is that?

We can’t guarantee that universe thing, but it is well worth a try. The taste gurus say it offers peach/nectarine aromas with some herbal notes in the background. White nectarine flavors come through in the beer. The rest of us just think it tastes good.

This story has been corrected to spell Ron Munger's name accurately.

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