Thursday, December 12, 2013
By GEORGINA GUSTIN McClatchy Newspapers
RICHWOODS, Mo. - Les Nydegger bought 55 acres of rolling Missouri woodland about 15 years ago, thinking he would use the land for hunting and fishing some day. But earlier this year, after retiring from a quarter-century-long career at Anheuser-Busch, he decided he hadn't gotten quite enough of the beer business.
A grower holds a hop cone, which provides an important ingredient in brewing beer.
David Carson/St. Louis Post-Dispatch
So he cleared an acre of forest, stuck 20-foot-tall cedar poles in the ground and planted hops.
"We thought it would be a neat thing to do, especially for the craft brewers," Nydegger said, standing near his fledgling hop yard, about an hour and a half southwest of St. Louis. "This is my chance to be a farmer."
Nydegger has company. In the past several years, there has been a surge of new hop growers around the country who are trying to cultivate beer's key flavoring ingredient.
"It's all over the nation," said John Henning, a geneticist who breeds and researches hops for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's hops breeding program in Corvallis, Ore. "I field calls from people from Alabama, Arizona, California. Everybody wants to get into it."
The boom in small-scale hop farming stems in part from the all-things-local ethos in today's food culture, and the continuing interest in craft brewing.
But many growers say they're attempting to decentralize a hops industry long dominated by growers in the Pacific Northwest and Europe, where, combined, farmers grow about 80 percent of the world's 120,000 hop acres.
"We were really interested in creating beers crafted from ingredients from our region," said Marika Josephson of Scratch Brewing Co. in Ava, Ill., which harvested its first hop crop last year. "To a certain extent, it's about control."
A turning point that launched many new growers came in 2007 when weather conditions in Europe and a warehouse fire in Washington's Yakima Valley destroyed a huge chunk of the globe's hops. The remaining hops went to fulfill contracts with giant international breweries, leaving craft brewers scrambling.
"Smaller brewers started saying: 'This is kind of crummy. We need a better source of hops,'" said Joel Mulder, a hop farmer and managing director of the Michigan Hop Alliance, which formed four years ago with five growers.
Many of the new hops growers are idealistic first-time farmers who are passionate about beer, and some are lured by the fact that hops are a high-cash crop that can be grown on a relatively small piece of land. (An acre can produce 2,000 pounds, enough for about 2,000 barrels of the average craft ale.)
In New York state, 75 growers have planted hop yards in just the last few years -- a phenomenon supported by demand from microbreweries and their craft-conscious customers who are willing to shell out more for specialty beers.
"If we didn't have 100 microbreweries in the state, then we probably couldn't compete on price with the Pacific Northwest," said Steve Miller, a hop specialist with Cornell University's cooperative extension.
Much of world's hops are grown for their bittering "alpha" acids, and end up in the light lager beers that dominate the beer market (Budweiser, for one).
So while the shortage of 2007 has long been reversed -- and was followed by a glut of hops in the ensuing couple of years -- craft brewers still find themselves scrounging for the aromatic varieties used in the beer styles favored by craft beer drinkers.
"For (brewers) who want aroma, they're begging already, and it's only the beginning"of summer, explained Stan Hieronymus, a St. Louis-based beer writer who is writing a book on hops.
Some brewers say they're so wary of the hops market, they avoid relying on hops altogether. At St. Louis' Perennial Artisan Ales, the beer lineup is in constant rotation, largely because brewmaster Phil Wymore remembers the 2007 crisis from his days at Chicago's Goose Island Beer Co.
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Matt McCarroll, a chemistry professor at Southern Illinois University, checks out his hops plants near Murphysboro, Ill. “The real challenge is mildew and pests,” he says.
David Carson/St. Louis Post-Dispatch