Farm to beer

Indy High Bines owners KC Lewis and Ryan Gettum grow hops on the Southside for local craft breweries

Longtime friends Ryan Gettum and KC Lewis often makes bets on how quickly their hops plants will grow at Indy High Bines, to keep each day interesting. *Photos by Nicole Davis

KC Lewis and Ryan Gettum will spend the month of August harvesting 1.25 acres of hops on the Southside of Indianapolis. Within 30 days or less, the flower used for flavoring beer will make its way into craft brews across Central Indiana.

Business is increasing – right alongside the growing craft brew industry.

“We feel like we’re at an exciting time for Indianapolis,” Lewis said. “We can only grow as much as (the industry) grows. If it continues to grow like it does and people continue to support the idea of shop local, then we will continue to grow with it.”

Gettum and Lewis have been friends for decades, both graduating from Center Grove High School in 1997. Gettum, who now resides in Perry Township with his wife, Julie and sons, Ben and Evan, works full time for a barn manufacturer. Lewis, who resides in Bargersville, works full time as a plant manager for Milto Cleaners.

Hops growing at Indy High Bines.

The two friends got the idea to grow hops and began to take it seriously in 2013. They started out small, with 10 plants at Gettum’s house to make sure they could grow the crop and get an idea of what grows well in the area.

“With those 10 plants, we got quite a lot,” Lewis said. “We were pretty confident we could grow hops at that point.”

In October, 2014, the two officially formed Indy High Bines. Gettum and his wife purchased the land on Bluff Road in Perry Township, which has four acres on which they could plant. That winter, they began to build the trellis for the plant to climb up.

“That first year was pretty rough,” Lewis said. “On top of our full-time jobs, we were still working 35 – 40 hours out here.”

That first year they were also rather successful with a nice harvest. A farm in Northern Indiana helped them to create pellets with the hops so they can be used for longer storage. A couple of local breweries, including Evil Czech in Mishawaka and Chilly Water in Indianapolis, made a brew with their hops the first year.

Plus, they learned a lot. Neither Lewis or Gettum have an agricultural background. It’s with the advice of local farmers, seeking out education and the luck of a green thumb that they credit to their success so far.

The yellow part of the hops is where the aroma comes from. This will be dried out and formed into pellets for craft brews.

“We ruined a lot of hops that first year,” Lewis said. “When we met with other farmers, we were asking about trellises, fertilizer, plant variety questions. We didn’t ask what do you do with them after you actually grow them.”

Starting out, the co-owners thought they could hand-pick the crop. Hops being a flower, there is only a two to three-week window of opportunity to harvest it. It’s all about timing. Friends and family came to help harvest, but they quickly learned that to be efficient, they would need equipment.

After that first year, they purchased a harvester and a pelletizing machine. At Christmas time, they would sit down and make a list with what needs to be done the following year and when.

“Now we’re producing what people think is a commercial-style product like you would get from a large producer,” Lewis said. Gettum continued, “Being able to do that has opened up other doors to breweries who are interested in something that has more shelf life. It adds more legitimacy to what we’re doing as a small hops farm, giving them a very professional product.”

Now in their third year, Gettum and Lewis are growing on 1.25 acres with four main varieties. They brought in a new, larger harvester in July, just in time for this year’s crop. That 1.25 acres consists of 15 rows of hops, with 160 strings per row. The new harvester can process 150 strings per hour.

The new harvester can process 150 strands of hops per hour.

“We’re pretty fortunate” Gettum said. “The type of soil we have here on our ground is different than most people’s soil. Most of Indiana is heavy clay. Ours is very sandy. It’s something hops like to grow in. They’re used to growing in almost a desert environment. For it to root and get large, it needs a loose-based soil. It helped us every year to see a bigger and bigger crop come in, plants get more mature. It gives us the confidence to expand.”

Indy High Bines’ product will be used in harvest brews at Taxman Brewing Company in Bargersville, MashCraft Brewing Company and Greenwood and now Indianapolis, Chilly Water, Round Town Brewery in Indianapolis and Flix Brewhouse in Carmel. The breweries which take fresh hops, such as Taxman and MashCraft, should have the beverages available around mid-September.

“Three years ago, there wasn’t a lot of local farms producing enough hops for breweries to use,” Gettum said. “We struggled to convince brewers to buy more than a couple pounds. Now we’re starting to get orders in for 100 pounds or 50. They’re getting more used to it. We had to give them something that was a comparable or better quality than they were getting out west. Most brewers are using pellets that are a year or more old. Our freshness, they’re getting the best quality of hops when they’re getting it that fresh.”

Gettum and Lewis said they’re looking forward to trying some new beers this year, and are often amazed at how the same variety of hops can create so many different flavors. They are constantly making new friends in the industry and searching for more breweries to use the product, while focusing on growing slowly.

“We were really conservative from the get-go,” Lewis said. “You’re not to expect a full yield for five years. So we don’t expect to make money off of it yet… I’m still very excited about what we’re doing. There are so many people that go to work and do jobs and never see an outcome or end product. Everything we give into the field, we see a result at the end of the day. It’s very rewarding.”

Getting to know KC Lewis and Ryan Gettum…

– “Neither of us home brew, which is where a lot of people start doing this. They want to grow their own hops to do home brews. We just enjoy craft beer. We thought we’d take a chance of doing something different.” – Gettum

“On the side, I do some woodworking; I build furniture in the winter when I’m not super busy.” – Gettum

“I like to golf. I’m a pretty avid golfer. I enjoy food and beer. Anytime I can get out and go to a new brewery, I try to. I also like to travel and see music.” – Lewis

Best Advice – Make a plan. We’ve made many plans and remade those plans. – Gettum

The more growers you know, the more education you can get and the better off you are. We are part of a growers association. We try talking to as many growers as we can, helping as many growers as we can. We had friends in the business. They made every mistake you could possibly make. They were nice enough to let us learn from those mistakes. – Lewis

Worst advice: Thinking we could have a pick a crop was probably the worst advice you could have. – Lewis

Best business decision: Buying this machine. Sourcing equipment. It’s not one decision but a collective of many. Everything has been bought used. We’ve bought at auctions, keeping costs low. Keeping everything in house so we’re not paying someone to process for us. We’ve really set our minds on being able to do everything we need to do at a high standard in house. We don’t buy anything until we’ve searched a long time. – Gettum

Secret to success: Our friendship. There’s a lot of stress that gets put on you when you’re working the hours that we’re working. Knowing Ryan for as long as I have, I’m not afraid of him telling me I’m doing something wrong. It’s literally spending as much time together as we do, and not wanting to kill each other. We compliment each other well. That has gone a long way – Lewis

In 5 years… Either at 1.25 acres or at 30. It’s hard to say. This could be something that becomes full-time for one or both of us. – Gettum

Indy High Bines

5206 Bluff Rd.

Indianapolis, IN 46217

(317) 372-5023

Twitter: @indyhighbines