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Flavors: Clay Boyce – Triple XXX Hops in North Central Montana

Clay Boyce Granary.jpg
Stella Fong
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Yellowstone Public Radio
Clay Boyce, owner of Triple XXX Hops stands at his processing shed, a renewed granary, where a hammer mill and dehydrator are stored.

About halfway between Winifred and Denton on the Bear Springs Bench, Clay Boyce is growing hops on five acres of land. Amongst the vast amber fields of wheat, the dominant crop grown in this area, is a five-acre patch where 18-foot trellises train hop vines towards the sky, and then 260 feet across the air.

Hops Trellis Clay Boyce.jpg
Stella Fong
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Clay Boyce, owner of Triple XXX Hops in Winifred stands next to Chinook Hops growing 18 feet up on the trellises he has built on five acres on the Bear Springs Bench.

After finishing college with an agriculture degree at MSU Northern in Havre, Boyce wanted to return home to Winifred to live. His brother, Casey, and sister also wanted to come back home. To be able to live on the land that he and his parents had ranched and farmed, the family needed enough water to sustain everyone’s livelihoods.

A well dug down to 3,000 feet helps Clay water the hops he grows for his company, Triple XXX Hops.

“So being a cattle producer I was able to purchase the brand,” he said, “and also threw it into the hops name as well.”

Hops are the cone-shaped flowers from the Humulus lupulus, a member of the Cannabaceae family of flowering plants. These flowers from the vining perennial are used by craft brewer. Hidden inside each cone are tiny yellow pods or glands called lupulin that give beer its characteristics. Hops contribute bitterness and floral and citrus essences to the flavor and aroma of the brew.

Hops.jpg
Stella Fong
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Clay Boyce, owner and grower of Triple XXX Hops holds a ripened hops in his drying and processing facility, an old granary turned shed.

Boyce grows four varieties: Centennial Chinook, Crystal, and Nugget. Each has the following characteristics:

Chinook hops features a piney, spicy bouquet with flavors of grapefruit.

Centennial hops contribute bitter qualities both in flavor and aroma.  

Crystal hops is a popular hop with herbaceous, floral, fruity and spicy notes of cinnamon, nutmeg and black pepper.

Nugget hops are bittering hops with green and herbal aromas.

An internship at Cricket Yard Hops in Bozeman gave him the knowledge to start his own enterprise, but closer to home, at CHS Big Sky, a company-owned, locally governed ag service with a branch in Winifred, Boyce met a key resource.

“When I started, the local COOP in Winifred had an agronomist," Boyce said. "Her name was Sarah Del Moro and she actually was really psyched that I was starting the hops because she had a real solid background in it and so she helped me in as far as researching stuff too and finding the varieties to pick for growing wise.”

As an agronomy consultant with a masters in Soil Science and experience working at hops operations in the Oregon area and around the world, Del Moro helped Boyce choose the hops he is now growing. Taking into consideration the clay in the soil on the bench and harsh weather conditions, they settled on the four varieties.

Pelletized Hops Crystal.jpg
Stella Fong
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: The pelletized Crystal Hops look much like rabbit food. The packages are frozen and sold to brewers to make beer, adding herbaceous, floral, fruity and spicy notes.

The hops are usually harvested at the beginning of September. The plant grow vines with green leaves in the spring. Then in midsummer, green growth slows directing energy to producing flowers that eventually become the hops that Boyce describes as “soft papery pine cones.”

“Once the pine cones are developed,” Boyce says, “in the inside there are what is called lupulin glands, and the lupulin when it is prime for harvest, the glands will be golden colored, and when they’re really golden, it’s basically time to pick.”

Boyce gathers family and friends to help with harvest. With a lift, a person downs the ropes that have trained one to four vines growing on the trellis. A mechanical harvester strips the hops from the leaves. The hops are then brought to a large dehydrator to dry at 100 degrees. Once the hops are dried, they are put through a hammer mill to then be made into pellets, looking much like rabbit food. The pellets are frozen, and then sold to brewers for making beer.

Matt Speed, owner and brewer at Gally’s Brewing in Harlowton uses Triple XXX Hops for his beers. Boyce’s Crystal Hops go into Speed’s Blood Orange, Montana Hef and Happy Gail.

“That’s been my go-to bittering hops this summer,” Speed said.

Matt Speed Gally's Brewing.jpg
Stella Fong
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Matt Speed, owner and brewer at Gally’s Brewing Company stands in his brewing facility located behind the bar of his taproom in Harlowton.

The two met in Speed’s taproom.

“He told us he had a hops farm," Speed said. "We ordered hops to try out and they are high-quality hops, and now we use them in most of our beers."

Clay Boyce is earning his way of life as one of the only hops growers in north central Montana.

(Look for a more in-depth story about Clay Boyce and Matt Speed in the November 2022 issue of “Raised in the West Magazine.”)

Stella Fong shares her personal love of food and wine through her cooking classes and wine seminars as well as through her contributions to Yellowstone Valley Woman, and Last Best News and The Last Best Plates blogs. Her first book, Historic Restaurants of Billings hit the shelves in November of 2015 with Billings Food available in the summer of 2016. After receiving her Certified Wine Professional certification from the Culinary Institute of America with the assistance of a Robert Parker Scholarship for continuing studies, she has taught the Wine Studies programs for Montana State University Billings Wine and Food Festival since 2008. She has instructed on the West Coast for cooking schools such as Sur La Table, Williams-Sonoma, Macy’s Cellars, and Gelsons, and in Billings, at the Billings Depot, Copper Colander, Wellness Center, the YMCA and the YWCA. Locally she has collaborated with Raghavan Iyer and Christy Rost in teaching classes.