More and more Ohio farmers are growing hops in hopes of supplying to local breweries. But starting a hop yard is not for the faint of heart.
If you head east about half an hour to the tiny Licking County village of Alexandria, there's a 1930s farmhouse set back from Outville Road by a long gravel driveway surrounded by woods. When the forest clears, giant wooden poles come into view.
What first appear to be rows of telephone poles are actually the beginnings of a trellis for 284 hop plants that 31-year-old Sam Morris, and his father, 65-year-old John Morris, put in the ground in late May and early June. Eventually, the hop plants will flower with soft, bright green cones. Once harvested, hops are used for bittering and aroma in many of your favorite beers, especially hop-forward IPAs.
Clusters of green leaves are already peeking through the Morrises' straw-topped raised beds, but even though the plants are starting to shoot out bines, which crawl upward like vines, this half-acre hop yard is in its infancy. The hops won't reach their full potential for about three years.
“This is extremely labor intensive and time consuming,” Sam said on a recent hot, humid Friday morning. Each plant requires a gallon of water per day, and with an irrigation system yet to be installed, that means standing over each of the 284 plants with a hose. Plus, father and son have to finish the trellis, which means driving more 22-foot wooden poles four feet into the ground, running metal cable between the poles and hanging rope made of coconut fiber from the cables.
Then there's the constant weeding. And spraying to avoid mildew. Not to mention the startup cost, which averages about $15,000 per acre. And that's before purchasing any machinery to harvest and process the hops. It's more akin to a vineyard than a field of corn or soybeans. The barrier to entry is high.
“There are so many variables that can ruin it all,” Sam said.
And yet, despite the sweat equity and upfront capital required, more and more Ohio farmers are hopping into hops. According to the Ohio Hop Growers Guild (OHGG), there are now more than 70 hop growers in the state, totaling roughly 100 acres, with about 50 more acres in the works.
From a supply and demand perspective, it makes sense. A new brewery seems to open every week in Ohio. According to Justin Hemminger at the Ohio Craft Brewers Association, the state boasts 282 breweries, and more are undoubtedly on the way. While Ohio used to be a hotbed for hops pre-Prohibition, for the past several decades, brewers have sourced their hops from farms in the Pacific Northwest, and most still do. So why not grow local hops for local breweries?
“Ohio craft breweries really respect what the farmers are doing, because they are grassroots companies,” said OHGG chair Jenny Napier, who also runs Barn Talk Hops Farm in Medina County. “But there's not oodles of money to be made just because people appreciate craft beer. People think with craft beer, it's an automatic home run. But like any business, you have to be very careful to learn as much as you can about what you're doing. … We try to warn people getting into it. It is quite an investment. You don't want someone thinking it's easy money and a weekend job like a vegetable garden, or raising chickens and putting an egg sign out at the road.”
So far, Central Ohio breweries have been slow to catch on to Ohio hops, though a handful have sourced hops in-state for one-off beers. Columbus Brewing Company has used Ohio hops in a wet-hopped beer, and Ill Mannered Brewing in Powell has sourced hops in-state from Rustic Brew Farm and Grandpop's Hops in Marysville and Knauss Hops in Lewis Center for beers such as the Rustic Ohio pale ale and a wet-hopped IPA called Side Piece.
At Grove City Brewing Company, head brewer Trevor Luthor said he has used centennial hops from Rustic Brew Farm in a Kolsch beer and cascade hops from HopAlong Farms in the brewery's Lamp Lighter Lager. Further southeast in Athens, Little Fish Brewing Company also sources hops in-state for certain beers, such as the Saison du Poisson, which features 100 percent Ohio ingredients.
Hops tend to take on the characteristics of the soil in which they're grown, and Ill Mannered co-founder Tom Ayers said the Ohio-grown cascade hops he has used tend to have earthier notes compared to their Pacific Northwest counterparts.
Some varieties of hops, like Citra, are proprietary, so if a brewery wants to use Citra in a beer, it has to source out of state. Typically, Ohio hops growers stick with the four Cs: cascade, centennial, chinook and Columbus.
Hemminger at the Ohio Craft Brewers Association said more Ohio brewers are beginning to source their malt and barley from Ohio growers, but most breweries still get the vast majority of their hops from outside Ohio. It's a supply problem. Ohio doesn't produce enough hops for year-round production yet.
Frank Rogers wanted to solve that supply problem. In 2016, he and his then-fiancee, now-wife, decided to go big on hops. A 2017 Ohio State grad with a degree in agricultural business, Rogers wanted to have a large-scale commercial farm, not a hobby farm.
“The largest [Ohio hops] farm is about three acres, and that's multiple varieties of hops. That's not enough size for any brewery to source hops from for a year-round beer,” Rogers said. “Our hope was to have 50 acres.”
Rogers leased some farmland in Circleville on a land contract and invested nearly a quarter million dollars into the project. “We had all of our equipment to harvest and to process our hops purchased and ready. We had planted 27 of the 50 acres, which was $44,000 worth of plants,” Rogers said.
But he was late on a payment last fall, and 10 days later Rogers said he was ordered by the landowner's attorney to vacate the property. “This spring [the hop plants] were sprayed with Roundup and killed, and soybeans were planted over them,” Rogers said. “It's devastating. Everything about it is devastating. I'm still trying to come to grips with it.”
According to Rogers, unless hop farmers are independently wealthy, or they own a large family farm, or they have well-funded private investors, it's virtually impossible to grow hops on a large scale in Ohio. “We went to banks like crazy and couldn't get loans. We went to USDA, which gives special farm loans and couldn't get anything from them. Nothing from the State of Ohio,” Rogers said. “There was no conventional funding available, regardless of the revenue potential.”
Sam Morris took the opposite approach for his Alexandria hop yard. Inspired by his father, who was an investor in a Newark brewery in the early 2000s when Sam was in high school, he initially wanted to open his own brewery. But by the time he finished college, the market seemed saturated with breweries.
“I still wanted to get involved in the beer scene,” Sam said. “I was in school in Boston, getting my master's in business management. I was looking for jobs and striking out, and also was unmotivated to work inside an office — just burned out of living in the city. One day something just clicked. I was talking to [John], and I had the idea [for hops], and he said, ‘Why don't you do it here?'”
“I just pointed and said, ‘There you go, have at it. If you wanna do it, don't rent land, just do it and see what comes of it,'” John said.
As much work as it takes to build a trellis system and care for the plants, harvesting and processing the crop can be just as costly and time-intensive.
“One bine takes about 40 to 60 minutes to pick,” said OHGG's Jenny Napier, who has 1,200 plants on her farm. “You need a harvester that picks the flowers off of the bine and separates the leaves and the bine from the hop cone. You need a big drying system to take those thousands of pounds of cones and dry it down to 8 percent moisture level. Then you need to store those in a cooler around 32 to 34 degrees. Then if you're going to hold them for a long period of time in the cooler you need a baler for 50- or 100-pound bales. Those need to be packaged in food-grade burlap. And then you put it into a pellet mill to create pellets, which is kind of like rabbit food, and then package those into Mylar bags that block light so they don't degrade. Those are vacuum-sealed, then back-flushed with nitrogen gas. … It's quite a process.”
And that doesn't include sending the hops off to a lab to get the acid levels, which brewers like to have printed on the bags of pellets.
“We can't compete with the Pacific Northwest on price point and volume. The only way we can compete is if we have a high-quality product and local service,” Napier said. “The quality was the main reason the guild got together.”
The guild awards a quality seal to growers who are inspected and meet certain standards, and OHGG members also work with and rely on Brad Bergefurd, the Ohio State University Extension's principal investigator for hops research and extension education since 2011. Bergefurd has built and manages three OSU hop research education yards throughout Ohio and has ongoing research projects on farms across the state.
On July 28, OHGG will also host a Hop Yard Open House at eight farms in Ohio, the closest to Columbus being Zachrich Hop Yard in Mechanicsburg (more details at ohgg.org).
“It's more than a fad or a trend,” Napier said. “I think it's here to stay.”
Even Rogers, after losing his farm, remains bullish on hops in Ohio. “I'm not a cynic. Anyone who has the means and wants to do it can be very successful here in Ohio. I truly believe the market is very ready,” he said. “I'd do it 100 times again in hopes of getting it to stick one time.”