YANKTON-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 map and data of all South Dakota breweries 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.)

"We brewed our own beer for a short period of time up to 2009," Hanten said. "But I think I was just a little ahead of the demand in South Dakota and hadn't bought the right equipment."

The entrepreneur decided to put his brewing venture on hold for some time and focus on the marketing and branding of his bar business and beer club.

At one of those beer club meetings in 2017, he was approached by retired fire marshal Perry Volden of Sioux Falls, who had moved to the Yankton area and also happened to be an experienced commercial brewer, formerly employed by Gandy Dancer Brew Works in Sioux Falls.

"Perry started hanging out at our beer clubs and just kept on saying how he thinks Yankton needs a brewery, and that the town would respond well to freshly brewed beer," Hanten said. "What he didn't really say, is that he wanted to brew beer himself and lead that project."

After some brainstorming and several pints of beer, Hanten was ready to make an offer to purchase all the necessary equipment, if Volden took on the job of brewmaster.

Volden now runs the brewing operation at Ben's, has a brewing assistant and puts out about 375 barrels per year, while Hanten spends most of his time on branding, getting the beer out to other places and making sure it sells. So far, Ben's has crafted as many as 28 flavors, with up to 12 on tap at any one time.

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

The bill increased the cap 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 allows for more options for growth in the industry in the future, believes Hanten, 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 was also popular in the early years of South Dakota statehood. During prohibition, hops was 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 is an excellent all round hop with good alpha and aroma properties and provides a refreshing, full-bodied, rounded bitterness. It can give a very crisp, fruity character that has been proven to be very popular in craft beers.

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

"I always have brewed beer myself, and just wanted to give it a try," Heine said. "We wanted to get back to the rural life and the area we grew up in."

The land was gifted to Heine from his grandfather at the time of his birth. In 2014, Heine and his wife decided to leave Omaha and return to the family's land.

His wife, Michelle Donner, is in charge of the catering business and runs a food truck, the Counterfeit Curbside, with unique food offers and flavors while using as much local produce as possible. Craft beer, plenty of outdoor space among the hops near Lewis and Clark Lake also makes for a great event location to promote the trendy concept of farm-to-drink.

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."