The expanding craft beer phenomenon has been responsible for a lot of local and regional economic activity. It’s resulted in new breweries and brewpubs, new restaurants and taproom outlets focused on craft beer, plus tourism and partnering opportunities, to name just a few examples.
Now, local farmers are getting into the game by growing hops, taking advantage of brewers’ desires to source ingredients as locally as possible.
According to Kathy Zimmerman, agricultural development manager for the Howard County Economic Development Authority, at least three county farms — Manor Hill Farm, Carroll Mill Farm and Valley Haven Farm, all of Ellicott City — have dedicated space to the crop that’s used as an aromatic, bittering and preserving agent in beer production, and at least one other farm is considering doing likewise.
With four active breweries in Howard County, another coming online in October and several others in the planning stage, the local demand for hops is steadily increasing.
Moreover, local brewers say they can’t keep up with the demand for craft beers.
It seems as though the market for local hops would be broad enough, and through exclusive contracts with larger scale breweries, perhaps deep enough, to influence more farmers to consider the niche crop.
According to Maryland Brewers Association Executive Director Kevin Atticks, Maryland used to be a prominent player in hop production. It was firmly in the nation’s historic hop growing region that extended northward to Massachusetts and westward to Ohio.
But that was before mildew and disease problems on the east coast drove commercial production to drier climes in the nation’s northwest in the late 19th century.
Today, the reemergence of hops as a commercial crop in Maryland is encouraging, “and the market is expansive,” Atticks said. “Every brewer would like local hops.”
The biggest risk factors are those of quality and the quantity that can be grown, “but we’ve seen some consistently good quality coming from the smaller producers thus far,” he said.
Stillpoint Farm, of Mount Airy, Maryland’s first commercial hops operation since the 1870s, began selling hops in 2011 to Barley and Hops Microbrewery and Flying Fish Brewery, both of Frederick; and Halethorpe-based Heavy Seas Brewery, and eventually established its own Milkhouse Brewery in 2013.
Black Locust Hops in northern Baltimore County and Lewisdale Farm in Montgomery County have also ventured into commercial hop sales, according to the Maryland Hop Growers Association Facebook site. Red Shedman, a new brewery operation in Mount Airy, also grows its own hops and operates its own hop yard.
At present, Maryland Farm Bureau Spokesperson Katie Ward said her organization is not aware of any hop farmers in Anne Arundel County, but that could be a reflection of less suitable soil conditions in the Coastal Plain, which most of the county occupies.
The Bitter Beginning
Randy Marriner, of Ellicott City, whose Manor Hill Brewing began operations earlier this year as Howard County’s first farm brewery, planted two acres of hop rhizomes next to the brewery this spring. His field now yields four hop varieties: Nugget, Chinook, Cascade and Centennial.
“The amount is woefully inadequate to suit our needs at the moment,” Marriner said, although he expects the yield to improve, as it takes three years for the perennial plant stock to mature.
“We’ll harvest enough this year to do one batch of beer, and we want to be as locally sustainable in the future as possible,” he said, observing that the farm could eventually expand its field size to 14 acres if the crop proves successful.
“Since I’ve started, a number of people have approached me to say they’re thinking about growing hops, too, and are asking for advice,” Marriner said.
As to his own potential for entering the market, “I’d definitely consider selling hops to other breweries if we do that well,” he said. “As a gentleman farmer, I’m in more of an experimental phase right now, but I’m willing to see where this goes.”
The hops industry in Maryland is so new that even the Maryland Department of Agriculture (MDA) has no clear picture of what’s happening in the state, let alone statistics regarding harvest volume during the past several years.
Still, there are those who are studying the plant’s potential and trying to push the limits as to where it can be grown.
Dave Myers, an extension educator with the University of Maryland’s Central Maryland Research & Education Center, in Upper Marlboro, is involved in research to demonstrate that hops can be grown successfully in the state’s southern climate.
“They’ve traditionally been more successful in the Piedmont and transition regions than in the eastern Coastal region, but we’re discovering that they probably can grow pretty well just about anywhere in Maryland, given the right care and attention,” he said.
The downside: They’re highly labor intensive, requiring the installation of poles and an annual stringing of strong trellis lines 20 feet in height. And they’re notoriously difficult to harvest.
“There’s no large scale production in the state yet, and it’s not likely to occur unless growers seriously start thinking about mechanization, which requires an investment of at least half a million dollars,” Myers said.
But that’s no reason for farmers to dismiss the crop, he said.
“Even small scale production can be quite lucrative, and that’s where I see most of the action going,” Myers said. “There’s no reason why every hop farmer shouldn’t find it easy to produce $12,000 from every acre.”
Virginia farmers are already experimenting with hop farming cooperatives, and organizations such as the fledgling Maryland Hop Growers Association could also incentivize the industry by encouraging the cooperative use of harvesting machines, he said.
In Atticks’s view, the hop industry parallels the early grape industry, which is now doing well in Maryland. “My sense is that there needs to be a large investment in hop growing for the state to become a staple in the industry,” he said, along with some incentives.
It’s a small start, but the new MDA Specialty Crops Block Grant program, established under the state’s 2014 Farm Bill, considers hop farmers eligible under its Culinary Herbs and Spices category. This year, MDA will administer funds totaling approximately $340,000.
Additionally, Atticks said, the Maryland Hop Growers Association is planning an information session in late September to better inform farmers who want to learn more about hops.
“They’ll be discussing different varieties and their uses, sampling will take place, and experts will be on hand to help new growers find out what’s in demand,” he said.
“There’s a lot of interest in and demand for the crop in Maryland,” Myers said. “How fast and how far it will go toward establishing the industry is anybody’s guess, but I’m cautiously optimistic about how large the industry can grow here.”