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Craft beer in South Dakota is no pint-sized operation: Microbreweries in the state have tripled since 2007

A flight of beer is served for sampling four of the unique hemp creations at Ben's Brewing Company in Yankton on Saturday. Sheila Slater / Forum News Service

YANKTON, S.D. — Craft beer is certainly nothing new, but the amount of interest and money in craft breweries in South Dakota has grown exponentially in the last decade.

High quality microbreweries have been popping up across the state, and whether it’s an India pale ale, known as an IPA, or a dark porter, it’s likely one can find a craft beer or microbrewery not far from home.

The largest cluster of microbreweries has formed in and around the Black Hills, where eight of the 27 craft beer breweries in the state have set up shop. In 2017, the craft beer industry made an economic impact of $209 million and produced an estimated 14,000 barrels of beer. Traditionally, there’s 31 gallons in a barrel of beer.

Sioux Falls now has seven microbreweries, creating a second hub of craft beer in the state, based on the most current data published by SoDak Beer.

Ben Hanten, of Ben’s Brewing Company in Yankton, is one of the pioneers in the field who started his venture in 2007 while still in his 20s. Hanten operates a bar under the same name, which he established in 2005. Hanten also runs the SoDak Beer website.

The microbrew industry took a turn for the better after former Gov. Dennis Daugaard signed Bill 173 in to law in March 2018, allowing homegrown craft breweries in the state to increase production.

The bill increased the maximum microbreweries can produce from 5,000 barrels to 30,000 barrels. It also lets craft brewers bypass distributors and sell up to 1,500 barrels of their suds each year directly to bars, cutting out the middleman.

The new law allowed for more options for growth in the industry in the future, Hanten said, but had little effect on his microbrewing operation.

“We were never going to run up against those limits,” Hanten said. “But the distribution clause has been helpful. If we go to events in Pierre or Rapid City where we do not have a distributor, we can now sell directly without signing up for a lifetime contract for a one-day event.”

Hops farming

While the craft beer scene in South Dakota is rich and growing, hops farming is still in its infancy, with fewer than 10 growers raising hops in the state based on research of the Beer and Hops office of South Dakota State University Extension.

Traditionally, hops are grown in the Pacific Northwest region of the U.S., but were also popular in the early years of South Dakota statehood. During prohibition, hops were no longer profitable, forcing farmers to look for other options like corn and soybeans.

While hops can grow in most climates, Ryan Heine, owner of 6th Meridian Hops Farm six miles west of Yankton, believes the good quality of the sandy shores around the Missouri River leads his hops to grow especially well.

“We currently grow hops on five of our 80-acre plot, producing about 2,000 pounds a year,” said Heine. “We’re still figuring out different flavors of hops and trying to feel out the field to have the best testing and best volume on hops.”

Heine hopes to expand his hops growing operation in the future and use all of his land to grow popular Chinook and Nugget varieties like the Dakota Challenger. The Dakota Challenger is a high yielding dual-purpose variety which originated in England. It can give a very crisp, fruity character that has proven popular in craft beers.

Heine supplies Ben’s Brewing Company with about a third of his annual yield and also sells his hops to microbreweries in the Black Hills area.

Both Ben’s Brewing Company and 6th Meridian Hops Farm have become tourists’ favorites, attracting visitors from near and far.

“The idea of beer and how we used to buy it has flipped on its head. People are looking for the freshest and most unique brews,” Hanten said. “Every town in South Dakota with over 10,000 people should have its own brewery.”