While small, craft breweries in the Midwest pride themselves on being hyperlocal and producing high-quality beers, there is an essential ingredient — hops — they can’t get locally.
But that could soon change.
The hop is the flower part of a family of vines, and how much and what kind you add determines how the beer tastes.
Hops grow best in arid climates with short days. The long days and high humidity of the Midwest make it difficult to grow them in the region.
Difficult, but not impossible, according to Patrick Byers, a horticulturist with the University of Missouri Extension. He recently finished a three-year pilot program to assess the feasibility of widespread hop production in Missouri.
The results were mixed.
Byers found only limited varieties could grow in Missouri and that it was more expensive. He said this makes it unlikely a craft brewer would get all their hops from local growers. Still, they could use some.
“If a craft brewer is interested in making a unique seasonal type brew that really reflects local conditions, then they may be interested in sourcing Missouri hops,” Byers said. “Recognizing that each year is going to be a somewhat unique experience, such as a vintage would be on a wine.”
A hop pilot program in Nebraska yielded similar results.
Stacy Adams, a horticulturist at the University of Nebraska - Lincoln, said the inconsistent and unfavorable weather will keep it as a niche crop, likely limited to expanding the options for small farmers.
“So like a family farm, that might grow vegetables and sell at farmers markets, they might be able to do hops along those lines, too,” Adams said.
Dave Gleason owns and operates Oak Creek Hops, a two-acre hop farm in Kearny, Nebraska. He said having direct contact with customers is important, but believes Midwest hops can be a big crop and serve all of a brewery's needs.. He said marketing is critical to his farm’s success, specifically in recruiting craft brewers to try Midwestern hops, and convincing them there is no sacrifice in going local.
“I think they are coming to the point where they are liking them more and more because they get a higher quality flavor and a higher quality aroma out of them, and they can use a little bit less of them,” Gleason said.
Gleason says Midwest hops have a stronger, fruitier flavor, and can be the primary provider of hops for craft brewers, including the eight breweries in Nebraska he sells to.
“There is acreage that maybe doesn’t produce the greatest corn and soybeans out in the Mmidwest, or they set aside smaller acres that can be utilized to grow hops on,” Gleason said.
Ultimately, it will take buy- in from the craft brewers to make midwest hops a growth crop.
Josh Stacy, owner of Public House Brewing Company in St. James, Missouri, might still welcome local hops. He said while Missouri hops won’t replace the hops in the flavors in Public House’s standard repertoire, it could be useful for limited runs of special brews.
“I think that would be the thing that would be interesting about this idea,” Stacy said. “Maybe it’s just an anniversary type thing, where we are going to bring in the load that year and potentially try something with it.”
Stacy said the majority of the hops he buys are from the Pacific Northwest.
“Washington and Oregon have the right climate to grow hops. And in terms of buying in the U.S., it’s really the best option for the highest quality and the most consistency,” Stacy said.
But he said he is considering growing hops on land the company owns behind the brewery or working with local farmers.
Even if that happens, it will still be a while before local hops end up in his beer. It can take hops three years of cultivation to produce a usable crop.
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