The Plain Dealer
by Debbi Snook
Hop to it, Ohio.
While the craft beer industry continues to bubble up around the country, each product proudly bearing a local signature, you’ll still find lots of imported ingredients going into the mix.
We’d excuse those who buy sprouted and malted barley from far-flung American fields. The grain at the center of beer making requires mass acreage of prairie and perfect enough weather.
But hops, the little green flowers responsible for beer’s note of bitterness – and other characteristic aromas – can be grown in a Northeast Ohio backyard.
Some state officials think we should do just that.
Estimates from Ohio State University Extension say we spend $30 million for hops each year, getting ours shipped in from Europe (England, France, Germany) and the Pacific Northwest. Not only is the money going out of state, it also doesn’t make much of a local flavor statement.
“And if you’re concerned about origin,” says Ohio State University’s hops expert Brad Bergefurd, “you could say breweries have a sustainability issue.”
There’s also a supply issue. In 2012, a drought in Europe leveled Britain’s hops crops, caused a shortage, a price hike, and howls from mug hoisters everywhere.
In July, Bergefurd, who works out of Southern Ohio in Piketon, organized a hops-growing workshop in Wooster that attracted 147 Northeast Ohio registrants. It was one of many presentations he has taken to all parts of the state, encouraging farmers to grow hops as another facet of a diversified farm.
Bergefurd brings along crop specialists, pest experts and marketing gurus to talk to potential growers. He shows off the towering trellises used for hops, which can easily grow 25 feet high. The experts talk about the plants’ needs including an infrastructure of $14,000 per acre, three years maturation to a full crop, lots of water, and constant pest monitoring. Bergefurd estimates that one acre can produce about 4,000 pounds of hops, and bring in anywhere from $5 to $10 a pound.
Currently Ohio has 100 acres in hops. Some 6,000 would be needed to replace the imports.
Last year I walked Ohio City Farm behind West Side Market and found a fresh hops blossom, called a “cone,” that fell off an experimental bine there. (Yes, “bine,” since these vines have scratchy skins used for clinging and climbing.)
I crushed it in my fingers and sniffed. The aroma was unmistakable: Beer!
The scent was more familiar when Ohio grew its own hops in the 1800s, but farmers then were beleaguered by the same problems they have now: Downy mildew, aphids, viruses, etc. The farming moved west, taking advantage of drier and less affected climates. Prohibition also put a damper on alcohol-related businesses.
Now there are upwards of 100 licensed Ohio beer manufacturers, thousands of home brewers, along with new knowledge about Midwest-tolerant varieties and integrated pest management – using good bugs to fight bad bugs.
Karen Wood of Magyar Community Garden in Toledo, who joined the Wooster workshop, was skeptical.
“I want to know the story on aphids,” she said. “I was thinking it would be a good crop for my low-income neighbors to grow for money. But aphids can decimate a whole community garden.”
Even if she did keep the pests at bay, growers face a lack of production facilities to dry, process into pellets and get hops to market. Small-scale boutique growing is widespread, but we’re nowhere close to tapping that potential $30 million market.
Andy Tveekrem is upbeat, though. Next week the master brewer at Market Garden Brewery in Ohio City, will help chair a meeting of the Master Brewers Association of the Americas meeting noon-6 p.m., Saturday Oct. 11 at the Ohio Agriculture Research and Development Center, 1680 Madison Ave., Wooster (email Tserng.firstname.lastname@example.org; call 330-263-3700 or 330-263-5501).
“To do more volume, we’ll need more mechanical processors,” said Tveekrem, who has been known to dry a batch at home, on a bed sheet.
Hops have only a three-week window for harvest before cold, rain and disease wipe them out.
“Hops don’t wait for anyone,” he said.
Buying cherry pickers for harvesting, industrial dryers, pelletizers – can add up to millions of dollars. One farm can’t do it alone, said Tveekrem, but there are plenty of opportunities for a cooperative group.
Bergefurd is encouraging, and is currently working with the increasing number of hops growers around Ohio, and the newly formed Ohio Hops Growers Cooperative.
“We know a market is sitting there, waiting,” he said.
With chilled mugs at hand.