A century ago, hops commonly were grown in Ohio, before pests and other problems forced production west, where most growing remains today.
Researchers are trying to identify the best-growing and most-pest-resistant hops for Ohio growers, as well as develop a supply chain and market for locally grown hops. The goal is to keep at home some of the $4 million the state's craft brewers pay each year for hops grown elsewhere. If successful, Ohio-grown hops also could give a unique twist to beer made here.
"We're not certain this is going to work, but we have high hopes," said Brad Bergefurd, an OSU Extension educator who works at OSU's South Centers research facility in Piketon. He and OSU entomologist Mary Gardiner are working on the hops project.
Although supportive of the OSU effort, the state's craft brewers know it will take years to develop an adequate supply of the right kinds of hops to meet their needs — if that supply takes shape at all.
"I think it's an interesting idea," said Eric Bean, president of the Ohio Craft Brewers Association. "But the whole issue is: Will there be enough hops?"
Ohio's craft brewers — mostly microbreweries and brewpubs that produce fewer than 15,000 barrels a year — are estimated to generate about $200 million in annual revenue, according to an analysis of industry statistics.
There's no doubt the state's craft-beer industry is growing. The number of Ohio permits issued to beermakers has almost doubled in the past five years, to 93, said Matt Mullins, a spokesman for the Ohio Commerce Department.
Meanwhile, the beer industry, including commercial breweries such as the Anheuser-Busch plant in Columbus, has a large economic impact in Ohio.
"The Beer Institute and the National Beer Wholesalers Association in 2009 did a study that estimated that the beer industry directly and indirectly contributes $7.7 billion a year to the Ohio economy," Bergefurd said.
The Boston Brewing Co., which operates the Samuel Adams brewery in Cincinnati, is the largest craft brewer in the state, brewing 800,000 barrels of beer there each year, Bean said.
Columbus Brewing Co., a brewpub in the Brewery District south of Downtown, is on pace to make 10,000 barrels this year, said Bean, who is president and brewmaster of the company.
"Ninety-five percent of our beer goes out our back door," Bean said, qualifying his company as a brewpub. In contrast, microbreweries sell 75 percent or more of their beer off premises, says the Brewers Association, a national group of beermakers of all sizes.
Today, almost 80 percent of the nation's hops are grown in Washington, mostly in the Yakima area, said Hop Growers of America.
But modern pest management, irrigation and mulching practices developed for vegetable crops "can be easily adapted to hops production to make this an economically feasible crop for Ohio again," researcher Bergefurd said.
He and his Piketon crew broke ground in March for their hop yard, planting a dozen varieties of the rhizomes whose flowers lend the aroma, flavor and bitterness to beer.
A few weeks ago, the researchers strung aircraft cable between 25-foot-tall telephone poles to create the trellis on which the hops bines will grow and flower.
Co-researcher Gardiner and her group are doing the same things in Wooster at OSU's Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center, Bergefurd said.
In addition to pests, Prohibition — the national ban on making, selling or transporting alcohol from 1920 to 1933 — had something to do with the hops-growing hiatus in Ohio.
"The farmer memoirs that I've read talk about Prohibition hitting, not being able to sell hops, so they converted their farms over to wheat or soy or whatever," said Brent Osborn, owner of Osborn Brewing, a homebrew shop in Monroe in southwestern Ohio.
"My guess would be, they just never converted back," said Osborn, who raised $10,000 this year in a campaign on the crowd-sourcing website KickStarter. He plans to use the money to sponsor local hops growers.
"Hops contribute flowery, spicy and citrusy/tropical fruit flavors and aromas" to beer, said Angelo Signorino, brewmaster for two Barley's ale houses in Columbus and Dublin.
Along the lines of terroir, the French term that describes the characteristics lent to wine, coffee, chocolate and other food and drink by a region's geography, geology and climate, the OSU researchers and Osborn hope to grow hops that set apart Ohio microbrews.
"Different water supplies, barley and hop varieties, and even native microflora all contribute to worldwide diversity," Signorino said. "Local hops would be a step toward a unique beer that could be identified with Ohio." Local brewmasters also like the idea of supporting local farmers. "We get local honey and brew thousands of gallons of beer with it each year," Signorino said.
Fresh hops make a beer vastly different from that made with kiln-dried and processed flowers, Columbus Brewing's Bean said. There is no Ohio infrastructure to dry, process and store hops.
"That's where the real expense of hop production is, in the kilning and processing procedures," Bean said. "Then, they have to be stored cold."
Although Columbus Brewing buys a small portion of its hops from a Salem grower, most Ohio craft brewers cannot get enough locally grown hops for their beers.
"We've yet to get local hops," Signorino said. "I've tried, but the supply is still pretty limited."
Along with identifying the best Ohio hops to grow, the OSU researchers are developing a supply chain for hop rhizomes — the sturdy roots that produce the hop plants — as well as a market for mature hop flowers.
The nature of the market might be a limiting factor for new Ohio growers. Brewers contract three years out for their hops, which come on the market only during brief harvest windows each year, Bean said.
Even if Ohio growers can earn between $7,000 and $20,000 per acre for their hop flowers, as estimated by OSU researchers, building hop yards across Ohio would be expensive.
"We have over $10,000 an acre invested in this project before you pick the first hop cone," Bergefurd said.
Still, the market opportunity for Ohio hop growers and brewers is alluring.
"The consumer is begging for more beer. That's a great problem to have, most of the time," Bean said. "Nobody knows where this is going to end."