Pennsylvania brewers hop to it

These are hops: The flower on the hop plant and the taste in beer.
These are hops: The flower on the hop plant and the taste in beer.
Posted: May 02, 2014

OUT IN western Pennsylvania, just up the Allegheny River from Pittsburgh, brewer Matt Gouwens has a green thumb and a dream: One of these days, he'll be brewing fresh beer with Pennsylvania-grown hops.

He's so certain of that dream, he's planted almost an acre of hops on his own property and boldly named his company Hop Farm Brewing Co.

"Local hops, local beer," Gouwens vowed.

For now, it's just a dream.

His acreage is nowhere near enough to provide enough hop for his small-batch brewery. Most of his supply comes from big hops farms in the Pacific Northwest, the source of almost all American-grown hops.

So Gouwens spends his hours chatting up local farmers, hoping to convince them to begin planting the vine-like flower that gives beer its bitterness and fresh, garden-like aroma.

"The goal is 100 percent local hops," Gouwens said.

This is not some quixotic quest.

The surging "eat local" movement has prompted scores of small brewers to begin sourcing hops from nearby farms. Slowly, they're bringing the crop back east, to its original home.

In the 1800s, almost all American hops were grown on thousands of acres of lush farmland in central New York. They began to disappear in the early 1900s, first because of pests and blight, then Prohibition. By the 1930s, the industry had moved westward to Washington, Oregon and Idaho, where larger farms produced more potent varieties.

Of course, bringing back hops will take much more effort than merely planting the roots, known as rhizomes. It will take years of crop development to produce usable quantities. And it will take the investment of tens of thousands of dollars to purchase harvesting, drying and packaging equipment.

But it is already happening.

In Michigan, farmers have formed a statewide hop network to educate startups on commercial hop growing and processing. Already, 200 acres have been planted, and 100 more are expected to come online this year.

New York will reach about 250 acres this summer, up from 15 just a few years ago.

That acreage is a dot compared to Washington state, where hops are a commodity crop grown by large collectives on more than 27,000 acres.

But forget the numbers. Instead, consider that we may be seeing the next chapter in the growth of artisan brewing in America. Scrappy, independent craft brewers, who in fewer than than 20 years reshaped the $100 billion domestic-beer industry, are now seriously changing the American agricultural landscape.

And make no mistake: It's the little guys - not the giants that dominate industrial farming - who are triggering change.

Tim Mroz, a spokesman for the nonprofit economic development group that helped found Michigan's hop network, said the organization was created solely to meet the demand of the state's craft brewers.

"The growers started from the standpoint of working with craft brewers to meet their needs," Mroz said. "They need not only high quality, but consistent quality.

"Well, the real win here is that Michigan is actually producing commercial hops that are being used by some of the best craft brewers in the world. Brewers like Bell's, Short's and Founders, who make incredible, incredible beer, who will not sacrifice quality in the name of a gimmick of using local hops. They see the quality."

In New York, meanwhile, the trend has been stoked by the creation of a new farm-brewery license. Modeled on winery legislation that successfully encouraged the use of locally grown grapes, the new regs created cheaper licenses and deregulated distribution for breweries whose beer is made with at least 20 percent locally grown hops and grains. (That standard will increase to 90 percent by 2023.)

In just over a year since the bill was signed, more than 30 farm breweries have opened in New York, according to Steve Miller, a hops specialist at Cornell University's Cooperative Extension.

"Things have changed a lot in the last couple years," Miller said. "Before, people would put in a half acre and try to sell to brewers. Now, we're seeing farmers putting in as much as 10 to 20 acres at a time."

Could we see the same thing happen someday in Pennsylvania?

Gouwens is trying, one farmer at a time. But he acknowledges that convincing them to devote time and money (up to $20,000 per acre) is a hard row to hoe.

"Farmers aren't rich people, and that's a lot of outlay," he said. "The farmer has to have some passion and patience, to wait two or three years for a return."

Sounds as if it's going to take more than a green thumb. Harrisburg, are you listening?


"Joe Sixpack" is written by Don Russell. For more on the beer scene, sign up for his weekly email update at joesixpack.net. Email: joesixpack@phillynews.com.

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