Bringing Hops Back to the Heart of it All

With the recent explosion of microbreweries in Ohio it’s easy for an entrepreneurial farmer to turn his or her thoughts to growing hops. At least that’s the pitch Brad Bergefurd, an Ohio State University extension agent, is making to farmers across the state. Since 2011, the number of craft beer microbreweries has doubled in Ohio from about 40 to over 80 in 2013, and many of them want to promote local ingredients along with their unique flavors. In addition, farmers in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, where most of the hops are grown in the United States, have been hard pressed to keep up with demand. The resulting increase in price for hops is definitely attracting a serious look from local farmers.

Recognizing that demand and prices are high doesn’t make growing hops an easy decision, however. Bergefurd estimates there is an investment of $10,000 to $12,000 per acre to grow hops. Not to mention that hops, a perennial plant, take about three years to reach reasonable yields. And there are no drying and curing facilities in Ohio or facilities to pelletize the crop. Like the establishment of many “local” foods, the need to build infrastructure to support the crop, makes “local” a real challenge.

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Hops are beer’s secret ingredient for bitterness and aroma, a small but critical element in beer brewing. About two ounces of hops are needed for about five gallons of beer.

Hops are a challenge to grow. The perennial crown and root stock of female plants (only female flowers are used in commercial hops production) are planted in early spring several feet apart in a field or raised bed where sturdy poles have been secured. Over the course of three short months, hops can grow up to 20 feet tall on wires attached to the poles. As the flower matures, it produces a central stem and bracteoles that are referred to as cones. When the cones are ripe, the vines are either lowered or cut so that the plants can be removed and the cones separated. One of the common difficulties of growing hops is the collapse of the wires and poles during high winds and thunderstorms of summer. This is unfortunately what happened to the hops started by Great Lakes Brewing Company last summer at the Ohio City Farm.

There are other serious challenges for the hops farmer as well. Insect pests and fungal diseases make it especially difficult to grow organic hops. In fact, according to Bergefurd, decades ago downy mildew combined with insect infestations wiped out the booming production of hops in the Midwest just before prohibition destroyed demand.

Fortunately, these hurdles are not discouraging a few pioneering farmers from taking on the challenge.

Mike and Jenny Mapier, of Barn Talk Hops in Wadsworth, have planted their first acre plus (1,400 plants) of Cascade and Nugget cultivars this year. They expect only a 5% yield in the first year, but they are taking the long view as they find their way through issues of marketing and production. They are exploring ways to develop the infrastructure needed, including roasting and pelletizing to support commercial hops production for themselves and others.

Andy Pax, a true pioneer in hops farming, is in his sixth year of production growing a halfacre of the same cultivars and hopes for a yield of about 300 pounds. His Heartland Hops in Fort Recovery, Ohio, sells to homebrewers and a couple of local microbreweries. Andy has built a small facility for drying his hops on his farm. Still, at $6 per pound for green hops, and $12 per pound for dried, this is more hobby than living.

Neall Weber is a fourth-generation farmer whose 2,400-acre Weber Farms in Central Ohio grows corn, soybeans, and hay. But his good friend and partner, Matt Mazur, a brewer in Columbus, persuaded him to plant a halfacre of four different kinds of hops this season. Matt, who started his career as a chef, began brewing in 1998 and is experimenting with every aspect of making beer from yeasts to sprouted barley to hops. His dream is to offer beers that are not only brewed locally, but that have ingredients that are grown locally as well. So Weber is growing some barley for Mazur in addition to the hops.

Can growing hops make a comeback in Ohio as microbreweries accelerate demand? Like so many farm products that can become part of a local cuisine, growing hops (and barley) will take support from consumers who learn to appreciate freshness and unique flavors of locally grown hops. And it will certainly take dedication from farmers who are willing to take the risks necessary to produce a superior product.

Want to learn more about getting started growing hops in Ohio? Contact Brad Bergefurd at bergefurd.1@osu.edu.