Brewers would savor Ohio hops comeback

JD Malone, The Columbus Dispatch

September 26, 2014

A century ago, Ohioans knew a thing or two about growing hop bines, but disease and Prohibition nudged hops off the state's farms.

The bines are coming back. Ohio will report a hop crop to the U.S. Department of Agriculture this year for the first time since before Prohibition, said Brad Bergefurd, a horticulture specialist with Ohio State University Extension.

"It is the first time we have made it on the list," Bergefurd said of Ohio's inclusion among states that grow commercial hops.

Hop flowers, or cones, are a critical ingredient in beer making, especially in new American " hop-forward" beers that use a lot more hops than traditional brews. Hops impart a bitterness that balances the sweetness of malt, and an aroma that can range from pine to passion fruit.

Bergefurd kicked off a hop-growing program in 2012 and has been doing a lot of field research to figure out which varieties will work here and which varieties Ohio's 100 craft breweries want to use.

Fred Lee of Actual Brewing Co. in Columbus dunked about 80 pounds of Cascade variety hops from Heartland Hops in Fort Recovery, on the Ohio-Indiana border, in his fall seasonal beer. Lee received the hops the day they were picked.

Because the hops were wet, he had to use five or six times as much as normal, but he said he didn't mind because the freshness of the hops imparts a unique flavor.

"The beer is awesome," Lee said.

Ohio farmers have about 100 acres planted with hops, and 30 of those acres will produce a harvestable crop, Bergefurd said. It's but a drop compared with the state of Washington's 29,000 acres of hops. Washington's farmers grow 75 percent of U.S. hops.

Hops have been in short supply in recent years as craft beer production has boomed across the U.S., driving up prices. Hops were $1.92 a pound in 2005, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and $3.59 a pound last year, although prices have come down since hitting $4 a pound in 2008.

Hops production moved to the Northwest after Prohibition, Bergefurd said, because of more favorable growing conditions with fewer pests and diseases. Modern insect and disease management makes hops cultivation possible across a much wider swath of America, he said.

It isn't easy, though, or cheap.

"The first couple of years were rough," said Andy Pax, who runs Heartland Hops. "Anybody can grow them, but not everyone can make them produce."

Pax has been at it for six years. Hop bines take several years to mature and produce a marketable crop, Bergefurd said, making the first few years financially difficult.

On top of the wait for a crop, hops require extensive infrastructure and ground preparation, which can cost $10,000 to $15,000 an acre.

"You can lose a lot of money real fast," Bergefurd said.

Hops are a perennial and will produce for 15 to 20 years, even if you don't want them to. Pax has a variety called Nugget that he's trying to get rid of to make more room for Cascade and Columbus bines.

"You can't kill the things," Pax said. "They'll grow even if they are sick."

Pax also sells hops to Yellow Springs Brewery, in Yellow Springs, and knows that other Ohio outfits want local ingredients.

Freshness is one reason, but local hops are cheaper, too, Lee said.

Lee wants Ohio hops farming to catch on, and he's willing to take anything they produce as long as it leads to success down the road.

"Even if they sucked," Lee said, "I would buy them and throw them in the dumpster.

"They need to succeed. I'm a big fan of this local stuff."