by Jessica Holbrook
Kevin Rice walks between rows of 20-foot-high vines. He plucks a cone-shaped growth from one, breaks it apart and holds it to his nose before handing it to Mike Schiltz, who does the same. The friends run Second Sons Hopyard, one of a growing number of farms in Ohio cultivating hops, one of the main components of beer.
Kevin Rice walks between rows of 20-foot-high vines. He plucks a cone-shaped growth from one, breaks it apart and holds it to his nose before handing it to Mike Schiltz, who does the same.
The friends run Second Sons Hopyard, one of a growing number of farms in Ohio cultivating hops, one of the main components of beer.
The cone-shaped green flowers grow on long climbing vines known as bines. At Second Sons, they twist around a 20-foot cable trellis supported by poles stamped with the company logo.
In the days before harvest, Rice and Schiltz are checking their plants for hops’ signature citrus scent, and breaking them open to check for lupulin, a yellow substance integral to brewing.
Their plants went into the ground two years ago. The first year yielded about 30 pounds. Their second harvest Saturday was expected to yield about 350 pounds of cascade hops from 500 plants.
Those hops should make an appearance in local craft beers this fall.
Hopyards like Second Sons are bringing a long-absent crop back to the Buckeye State.
Hops aren’t a new crop in Ohio — farmers grew them here hundreds of years ago — but in the late 19th and early 20th century, production began to shift westward, largely because of disease and pests. Prohibition was the final straw, said Brad Bergefurd, a horticulture specialist at the Ohio State University Extension.
Today, most hops grown in the U.S. hail from Washington and Oregon, where a drier climate means fewer problems with mildew.
In 2012, Bergefurd and his team began working to bring the crop back. Using techniques they’d learned with other specialty crops, they began growing varieties of hops and researching ways to help the plants thrive.
The project has been a success. The extension program had its third hop harvest this year; the crop was as good, if not better, than what is growing out west, Bergefurd said.
They also are working with Ohio farmers who are starting their own hopyards. The extension holds workshops, farm tours and an annual conference and trade show.
They formed the Ohio Hop Growers Guild, a cooperative of Ohio farmers. The guild now has close to 70 members, including Second Sons.
The number of hop farmers “is growing so fast that it’s tough to keep up,” Bergefurd said.
Last year, Ohio made the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s hop acreage report for the first time. The state is probably up to 120 acres now, Bergefurd said.
But as quickly as hop growers are entering the field, craft brewers are popping up even faster.
At last count, Ohio had 135 craft breweries — up from 58 in 2012 — and is on track to hit 200 by 2020, said Mary MacDonald, executive director of the Ohio Craft Brewers Association.
Many breweries are using Ohio-grown hops to brew wet hop beer, a style that uses hops within days of being harvested, she said.
Localism is a huge point for Ohio breweries and they want to use Ohio ingredients, she said. But for breweries to use Ohio hops on a larger scale, growers need to guarantee consistent, high-quality hops in large quantities.
“It’s one thing for a brewery to do a one-off beer with local hops. It’s another to rely on it for beers (year-round),” she said.
Ohio hop growers are working toward meeting those needs, she said.
It would take 6,000 acres of hops just to fill the needs of Ohio’s existing craft breweries, Bergefurd said.
“We’re a little ways away off … but that’s a great goal to be shooting for.”
Ohio produces about 1.1 million barrels a beer a year and, using conservative estimates, brewers need about 4 pounds of hops per barrel. That equals $30 million, spent each year on out-of-state hops, that Bergefurd is hoping Ohio farmers can capture.
“That’s $30 million leaving the state each year in both jobs and money,” he said.
Second Sons may be two years old, but the venture is a decade in the making.
“This is a hobby gone awry,” Schiltz joked.
For about 10 years, Rice and Schiltz talked about getting into the craft beer industry. Both owned businesses and worked full-time, so those talks were just that — until a few years ago.
“We talked about brewing beer for years. This was the compromise,” Schiltz laughed.
Schiltz had sold his business and was looking more seriously at brewing when he came across articles about growing hops in Ohio. Then he saw the results of the OSU Extension’s hop growing project and became even more interested in trying it himself.
He brought what he’d found to Rice, who jumped on board.
“At some point, both being business owners, we realized sometimes you’ve got to just shut up and do it,” Schiltz said.
“You’ve got to set up a plan and execute it,” Rice added.
Rice’s family had some extra land near the Lake Township border to grow trees — a venture they ended during the recession — and that became the hopyard.
The farm has been a learning experience.
“People look at this and think it’s easy, they’re going to grow some and make lots of money,” Rice said. “It isn’t easy. It’s an intensive crop.”
The plant has no problems growing — hops are the second-fastest growing in the world next to bamboo, Rice said.
But farmers have to find the right soil PH, the right fertilizer and an irrigation system that will be a saving grace during dry summers. They also have to keep an eye out for mildew and pests.
It’s a perennial crop that doesn’t hit its peak until its third year, Schiltz said.
There’s only a small window of opportunity to harvest hops once they’re ready, but doing so requires a lot of coordination, Schiltz said.
Harvesting requires cutting down the vines and running them through a mechanical picker to remove the hops. Second Sons is using a picker from a farm in Wadsworth.
“Otherwise you sit around a table with your friends and give them free beer,” Schiltz joked.
Once the hops are off the vine, brewers looking to use wet hops will need to have them in a brew within 48 hours.
Second Sons has coordinated with several local brewers, including Royal Docks Brewing Company in Jackson Township, which plans to use the wet hops in an upcoming brew. R. Shea Brewing in Akron also plans to use the hops in a beer featuring Ohio-sourced ingredients.
Some of the hops Second Sons will use in their own home brew. Others, they’ll pass on to other home brewers. Home brewers need about 5 to 10 pounds of hops for a batch. A craft brewer may need 10 times that amount.
The remaining will be dried and processed. Most brewers use pellet hops, Schiltz said.
A wet hopped beer made with Second Sons hops would be ready to drink in about mid-October, Rice said.
The pair is hoping this year is the first of many they’ll get to enjoy a beer they grew.
The hopyard is a hobby, Schiltz said.
“We’re not golfers. We would rather come out here and spend five hours digging in the dirt and hanging out with our dogs and having some good beers at the end of the day,” Schiltz said.
They’re hopeful that one day the effort will pay for itself, he said.
“Ultimately, and an even bigger goal, is to see these go into quality, local craft beers,” Schiltz said, “so that we can go to some of these emerging brew pubs, sit down and order a pint and know that is made with hops that we grew.”