A sliver of green stretches from the ground, snaking its way up a piece of string hanging down 15 feet from the back of a deck in hilly Athens. Two days ago, the hops bine (vine) was still on the ground in a mass of greenery.
“Once they have something to grab onto, they really take off. In just a day, they can grow 6 inches to a foot. It’s crazy how they are taking off,” said Melissa Christen, farm manager of Jackie O’s Barrel Ridge Brewery Farm, an Athens County Farm Bureau member in southeast Ohio.
The same could be said of the growing hops industry in Ohio. More than 100 years ago, the crop was grown in Ohio but moved out to the Pacific Northwest where there weren’t as many problems with insects or mildew. Prohibition also played a role in the demise of the crop, which is used to balance the sweetness of malt in beer. For decades, little remained of hops in Ohio except for the random bine that had survived on an old farmstead.
But the crop is coming back to life, thanks to a thriving craft beer industry. In 2013, the number of Ohio microbreweries (producing under 6 million barrels) was 93, up from 58 the year before, and 30 are in the planning stages. The economic impact for this state is $1.2 billion a year, according to the Brewers Association.
“The amount of growth in just the last couple of years is amazing,” said Brad Bergefurd, a horticulture specialist at Ohio State University Extension. “I’ve done specialty crops for 24 years and this is almost like a new industry in the state. Taking a 100-year-old crop and bringing it back to Ohio is awesome.”
Putting down roots
About seven years ago, Steve Patterson, an Ohio University associate professor of psychology, started experimenting with hops, growing them in his backyard. The idea came from Ohio University linguistics teacher Art Oestrike who had some rhizomes (roots) in his refrigerator and wanted local hops for the beer he was making at Jackie O’s Pub and Brewery, named in honor of his mother.
Patterson started with a couple of varieties—there are more than 120 different types in the world—and is partial to the productive Columbus variety (no relation to the city) and willamettes, which he calls a “kindred spirit” since he grew up in Portland, Ore., along the Willamette River. Production is now centered at two areas—an old farmstead just outside Athens and a tiny plot along the Hocking River near Ohio University.
Growing hops is a labor of love for Patterson whose grandfather picked hops in the early 1900s. Because hops grow vertically, a network of trellises is needed, which can be expensive. Experts say the infrastructure costs about $10,000 per acre, and harvesting is labor intensive.
“I pick by hand and it can be painful. The bines have rakey, little claws and they can rake your skin pretty good,” Patterson said, showing off his scratched up arms.
Hops are a perennial and start to emerge the beginning of April with harvest in August or September. The flowers of the plant are called hops or hop cones and are harvested by cutting the entire bine (they can grow more than 25 feet) and pulling the hops off. The hops are used either fresh or dried and often pulverized into pellets that look like rabbit food to give them a long shelf life. The hops grown in Ohio are used shortly after harvest because the state doesn’t have a pelletizing processor.
“Out west they’re shipping hops by the rail car while here we don’t have the volume of hops to put in a $250,000 pelletizer. In order to use local hops, Ohio brewers are having to make adjustments to how and when they brew beer if they are using fresh hops,” said Bergefurd who helps oversee Ohio State’s experimental hops yards in Wooster and Piketon.
Patterson’s hops and habanero peppers are used in Jackie O’s beers, which feature unique local ingredients such as paw paws, walnuts, maple syrup and lemon verbena.
“We’d like to do a beer that is 100 percent locally sourced but getting local grains and hops are always an issue,” said Oestrike, who can only make a couple of batches of beer with local hops.
The craft beer business has been brisk for Oestrike and others, thanks to the state lowering the annual license fee for small operators and allowing them to open taprooms where beer can be consumed on site without purchasing another license. Oestrike plans to expand beyond the few hops grown off his deck at the farm by putting in about two acres of hops. Two years ago he bought an old cheese manufacturing building and turned it into the Taproom, where he processes about 10,000 barrels of beer a year and sells it to customers for on-site consumption or carryout.
Seeing a bright future for hops production in Ohio, Patterson is working on starting a hops growers alliance that would promote the industry and pair hops producers with brewers. Doing so would help producers get a share of the $4 million in annual hops sales that usually go to Pacific Northwest growers.
“It would be fantastic if our Ohio beer was made again with all Ohio grown products,” said Mary McDonald, executive director of the Ohio Craft Brewers Association.
Visit the Ohio State University Extension website for additional information on raising hops, hops workshops and fact sheets and the annual hops and barley trade show.
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