In the 1980s, Eric Kufel worked at the short-lived Melbourne’s Brewing Company in Strongsville, and also brewed his own beer for years. He fell in love with the scent of hops, the flowering plants used as a flavoring agent in beer.
Now, Kufel ovesees 85 poles on his Richfield-based Baenum Hop Farm. He planted his first crop in 2017, and finally got a full yield this past fall. It’s a labor of love for Kufel—even if it’s not an easy one. “You have to be on your A game,” he says. “You have to stay ahead of the game, and if you don’t, you’ll fail miserably.”
Baenum Hop is part of a growing trend in Ohio at the intersection of the craft brewing craze and increasing consumer demand for locally sourced food and beverages. The rise in microbrewing throughout the state has led to a rise in the local cultivation of ingredients for beer, including hops. “I wanted to be around hops,” Kufel says. “I didn’t know how much I wanted to be around hops.”
Although hops are used for flavor now, their original use in beer production was as an anti-bacterial preservative, says Jenny Napier, a hop grower and processor and a member of the board of directors of the Ohio Hop Growers Guild. In fact, she says, that’s how India Pale Ale got its name—and bitter taste. Brewers had to use large quantities of hops to keep the beer from going bad on its journey from England to the subcontinent.
As beer production moved to the United States, so too did hop production. Ohio became a haven for hop production in the late 19th century, but outbreaks of downy and powdery mildew vastly reduced the harvest in the early 20th century. Prohibition effectively ended the need for hops, spelling the end of hop farming in Ohio—at least for a while. After repeal, the hop-growing industry migrated west, and the West Coast states, especially Washington, remain the largest producers of hops for brewing.
Kufel watched the Northeast Ohio craft brewing scene rise, then fall in the early 1990s. He thinks what’s happened in the past decade has been different—and will last longer. “Before, the interest wasn’t there,” Kufel says. “It was a time and place where people weren’t ready for it. And now you see the market has just exploded. The timing is there. It’s here to stay.”
Which is good, because hop-growing requires a heavy initial investment of time and money. Hops are a climbing plant, sometimes reaching as high as 25 feet on suspended rope. Napier says most growers use coconut-fiber rope and have to train the hops to grow clockwise, climbing up the rope until about the summer solstice, and then flowering until harvest time in the early fall. The plants themselves can live 20-30 years, but they don’t have a full yield until year three—this year, for Baenum Hop—when the hop cone fully matures.
The hop plants then need to be processed at one of the three hop-processing plants in Ohio—Ohio Valley Hops in central Ohio, Scott Farms in southwestern Ohio, or Barn Talk Hops in Wadsworth, operated by Napier and her husband, Mike.
“She said, ‘What are you going to do when you retire,’” says Mike, who spent 32 years as a mechanic with the city of Wadsworth. “I hadn’t thought about it. Next thing you know, we’re clearing land and buying a harvester from Slovenia.”
The harvested hop bines have to be dried almost immediately to preserve the lupulin, the active oil in hops. “As soon as you pick it, you want to start drying it, or the lupulin that’s inside will start to dry out and degrade,” Mike says.
And drying itself is an art, similar to roasting coffee beans. About 4 pounds of wet hops off the vine yield 1 pound of dry hops. “You can have a great hop cone, but you can ruin it if you don’t dry it out right,” Mike says.
From there, the dry hops are pelletized and vacuum-sealed. They then are added to wort, a sweet liquid drained from mash and fermented to make beer. Kufel’s hops are sold to 16 different breweries, including Fat Head’s and R. Shea Brewing. There are about 80 different types of hops commercially available that can be used in beer—plus some that are proprietary, made through breeding—and then available for licensing to other breweries. Kufel initially tried to grow his favorite—Centennial hops—but the yield was too small. Now he, like most Ohio hop farmers, produces Cascade hops, an all-purpose hop that can be used in a variety of beers. For most growers like Kufel, growing hops can be a matter of trial and error, trying to discover what grows best in Ohio.
“We’re all learning too,” Jenny says. “A lot of information out there is geared toward the Pacific Northwest. We’re kind of pioneers.”
But even initially, there are rewards. Brewers tout locally grown hops on their menus. Kufel likens it to growing grapes for wine.
“Our hops have different qualities because of the soil and conditions, even compared to Michigan,” which has also emerged as a hop-growing state, Jenny says.
About 20,000 pounds of hops are grown in Ohio, a drop in the growler compared to Washington, which produces more than three-quarters of all the hops used in American brewing, estimated around 77 million pounds. But there’s room for growth in Ohio—and Kufel and the Napiers welcome it.
“People think they’re flooding the market, but it’s a huge pie,” Mike says. “If you grow hops, and you grow quality hops, you’re not going to have a problem selling it. If you grow a quality product, your hops will sell themselves.”