The flourishing craft beer industry has spurred the growth of hops farms in Ohio and a fledgling Miami County farm is one of several in the region trying to take advantage of the popularity.
Shawn Richards and his partners have three-plus acres of Miami County land and a plan — grow a bountiful yield of rich, flowering hops and a perennial place at the ever expanding craft beer table.
Richards, cousin Andrew Lesher, friend and colleague Beth Salyers, along with family and allies, are the brain and brawn behind “Hop Yard at Lock 16,” a small but growing hops farm off Tipp-Canal Road in Monroe Twp. southeast of Tipp City.
The new farm is in good company in Ohio.
Small hops yards abound, and the industry has been growing as a commercial crop. Dave Volkman, chair of the Ohio Hop Growers Guild board of directors, said what hop Ohio farmers offer is “the taste of Ohio.”
That growth is fueled by the steady rise of craft brewing itself. The Brewers Association, a national trade group, expects craft beer to control 20 percent of the nation’s $100 billion-plus beer market by 2020. The number of breweries nationally reached 4,144 at the end of 2015, above even the beer industry’s historic peak in the late 19th century.
In 2015, U.S. hop acreage increased by 15.4 percent, just shy of 6,000 acres in that year alone, according to Hop Growers of America.
“We have felt plenty good about it,” Volkman said. “Those of us growing, we have had no problem selling our hops, as long as they’re good quality hops.”
Buying local hops
Volkman pointed to Dayton Beer Co., Fifth Street Brewpub, and Lock 27 as local brewers who have bought Ohio-grown hops.
Brian Young, founder of Dayton’s Fifth Street Brewpub, said his operation, which was founded in 2010, uses locally grown hops and barley where possible.
“It is a home-grown co-op, and all of the people who own that are residents of this area,” Young said. “We like to continue to do that, and not just with hops.”
The flavor differences with hops can be subtle, but he said: “I think they each have their own characteristics.”
Darren Link, brewmaster at Fifth Street Brewpub, said he buys part of a harvest each year from Little Miami Farms in Xenia, making a special batch from those hops, amounting to about 14 kegs.
“It differs in the bitterness and the flavor, being picked right off the vine and put into the kettle,” Link said. “It really lends an earthy freshness.”
Steve Barnhart, founder of Dayton’s Lock 27 Brewing, agreed that locally grown hops and grains are important to customers.
“Our customers have a desire to be locally connected,” he said. “I think that’s a trend you’re setting nationally with the reemergence of small business.”
“We really do love having local hops farmers,” he added.
Hops are to beer what grapes are to wine — a flavorful yet stabilizing ingredient that helps impart to beers certain distinctive identities, such as varying levels of citrus or zesty — some might say “bitter” — tangs.
Volkman farms about 1.5 acres in Warren County, in Maineville — and he has two brewers ready to buy his entire yield right now.
“I’m already sold out,” he said.
The guild has about 70 to 75 farmers. It’s been growing each year by 10 to 15 new members, Volkman said, with member farms ranging from a quarter-acre to four or five acres. There are plans for a 50-acre farm in Circleville and a 20-acre farm in Batavia, he said.
The guild’s annual yield is relatively small today: With about 100 acres of hops farmed across the state, farms get a yield of 900 to 1,000 pounds of hops per acre, Volkman said.
But demand is there.
“If you’ve done your homework and you have a good business plan, it’s a very viable specialty crop,” he said.
A family adventure
Hop Yard at Lock 16 — the name refers to locks along the route of a former canal — grows three types of what the owners say are disease-resistant hops, Cascade, Centennial, and Zeus varieties.
The land has been owned and farmed by the Lesher and Richards families since 1947. After more than two decades in finance, Richards decided on a different life, and he and Salyers worked for a time in North Carolina before returning to Ohio last October.
“I farmed this land with his (Lesher’s) dad and my dad and my grandfather,” Richards said. “Growing hops was something I was always interested in.”
“They are seventh-generation farmers in Ohio,” Salyers said of Richards and Lesher.
After research and consultation, the group ordered hops varietals and an array of Canadian soft timber poles, the physical infrastructure that supports cables and lines of twine along which growing hops will stretch. The lines and poles need to support a lot of weight; fully grown plants weigh up to 75 pounds each.
Solar powered irrigation and nitrogen-delivery set-ups were also built, as was a system to monitor moisture in the soil.
“It’s a lot of infrastructure,” Richards acknowledged. “The infrastructure is costly in the beginning.”
In all, the financial investment in the farm so far has been about $45,000. And that doesn’t count sweat equity, with constantly daily attention to the plants, wires and poles required.
But once properly planted, the hops should return each year.
“We did our math, and we said, ‘All right; it’s worth it,’” Richards said.
He and Salyers — who is the operation’s vice president and assistant secretary — worked for a time in draft line cleaning for breweries in North Carolina. They noticed that brewers were very insistent on “quality” and consistent quality at that.
“What we wanted to experiment with was, can you get different flavors with localized hops,” Richards said. “Because right now, 80 percent of all the hops are from the Pacific Northwest.”
You can’t fight Mother Nature
Ohio-bred hops may lend a more distinctive flavor profile. That remains the farm’s goal as it embarks on its first year crop.
Lesher said this year’s copious rain has been a challenge.
“It has slowed us down as far as getting what we need to do done in time,” Lesher said. “But that’s how farming is. You work on the sunny days. When it rains, you can’t fight Mother Nature.”
The business expects no yield from the hops this year. The plan at first is to simply get roots established, even though they do have plants that are actually producing early cones right now. Initial tests on alpha acids and plant chemistry will follow. Tests with home-brew batches are also planned.
Then the next steps will be marketing to local brewers.
“We haven’t marketed at all,” Richards said. “Our No. 1 priority is to make sure we have a quality product to offer. Once we have quality product, then we’ll start offering it to the breweries.
With this three-acre-plus yard, about 7,000 pounds of yield in August 2018 is the expectation, with more than 10,000 pounds possible once the yard is fully up and running.
Said Richards, “It’s a long game. We knew that going into it. That’s what I liked about it.”
Hops farming by the numbers
50,000+: Hops plants in Ohio soil.
30+: Hops varieties grown in Ohio.
70+: members, Ohio Hop Growers Guild.
Inventory of hops as of March 1, 2017: 140 million pounds, nine percent higher than the 128 million pounds recorded as of March 1, 2016.
Sources: Ohio Hop Growers Guild, U.S. Department of Agriculture