Ohio State horticulture specialist Brad Bergefurd, left, and hop farmer Andy Pax examine hops Thursday in Pax’s hop yard on State Line Road southwest of Fort Recovery. (The Commercial Review/Chris Schanz)
Ohio State horticulture specialist Brad Bergefurd, left, and hop farmer Andy Pax examine hops Thursday in Pax’s hop yard on State Line Road southwest of Fort Recovery. (The Commercial Review/Chris Schanz)
A decade ago, there were around 15 to 20 craft breweries in Ohio.

This year, that number reached more than 340.

But with the skyrocketing popularity of craft beer comes a parallel increase in demand for hops, one of the key ingredients in beer.

And in Ohio, farmers are still working to catch up to the booming brewing community.

Ohio State University Extension Mercer County Office hosted a workshop for those interested in learning more about growing hops Thursday at Fort Recovery High School and a local hops farm.

Brad Bergefurd, an OSU horticulture specialist, discussed the history of hops growing in the state, and how the 18th amendment effectively ended all Ohio hops production.

“This is nothing new. We grew hops in Ohio 100 years ago,” Bergefurd said. “We have the climate … but once prohibition hit, no place in the Midwest could sell hops.”

During the years of prohibition, from 1920 to 1933, hop farmers in Oregon and Washington continued growing hops, selling them on the international market.

According to Bergefurd, that’s how the Pacific Northwest became the nation’s major hops production area. But Bergefurd and other Ohio farmers are working to bring the leafy-vined plant back to the midwest.

Hops, a perennial plant, are grown on lines suspended 20 feet in the air. The hop vine grows up the length of the line, but takes about two to three years to provide a full yield.

According to Bergefurd, current demand of Ohio craft brewers would require an estimated 6,000 acres of hops harvest each year. The state produced about 300 acres of hops plants this season.

But hops farming isn’t easy. Farmers have to fight downy mildew, hops aphids and a number of other pests and diseases that could impact their yield. And unlike corn and beans, hops have to be harvested at just the right time to preserve the lupilin glands, which provide the flavor brewers are looking for.

“That’s the market we’re in. If it’s not the same quality as they have in Yakima (a major hops producer in Washington), they don’t want it.” Bergefurd said.

But brewers still want to buy local hops, and Andy Moeller of Moeller Beer Barn in Maria Stein, Ohio, said that he hopes to see the hop supply in Ohio continue to increase.

“Of course we want to buy local,” Moeller said. “But if I’m buying an Ohio hop for premium prices, how do I get my bang for my buck.”

Bergefurd said the recipe for success for Ohio hop farmers is to try and keep their prices near or below the market value, and to talk to brewers about what kind of hop varieties they’re looking for before planting their first crop. If their hops are the same price and quality as those from the Pacific Northwest, local brewers will choose to buy local, he said.

Despite the challenges facing farmers who hope to break into the hops market, the Ohio Hops Guild has worked to expand hops production through the state. Now, the guild has more than 80 members and is working to educate other farmers and advocate on behalf of hop producers.

Andy Pax, owner of Heartland Hops in Fort Recovery and guild member, was one of the earliest Ohio farmers to experiment in growing hops, starting 12 years ago.

“It was just kind of a crazy experiment,” Pax said. “I was watching the History Channel one night and they were talking about hops and prohibition and how hops were grown in this area in the past.” 

Pax said last year was his best year of yield for his nearly one acre of hops. But his success wasn’t without a few hiccups along the way.

“When I started, there really wasn’t anyone in Ohio to talk to about it,” Pax said. “There are 1,001 ways to fail as a hops farmer and I’ve done a lot of them.”

But trial and error, with a healthy dose of ingenuity, means that Pax has been able to sell his hops to local brewers, including Moeller.

“You’re not going to get rich selling hops.” Pax said. “But the best thing about it is the people. The hop farmers, the brewers, everyone I’ve met doing this has been great.”