Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Truly local beer at last: A century after Prohibition, Pennsylvania hops make a comeback

In 2008, news of a global hops shortage sent brewers into a cold panic. But for a few would-be farmers, it planted the seed - or, more precisely, the rhizome - of an idea.

Hops farmers (from left) Beau Byrtus, Art Rhea, and Marylu Hansen at their Oast House Hop Farm in Wrightstown, N.J. Even some of the region's brewers are planting hops.
Hops farmers (from left) Beau Byrtus, Art Rhea, and Marylu Hansen at their Oast House Hop Farm in Wrightstown, N.J. Even some of the region's brewers are planting hops.Read moreMARK PSORAS / Staff Photographer

In 2008, news of a global hops shortage sent brewers into a cold panic.

But for a few would-be farmers, it planted the seed - or, more precisely, the rhizome - of an idea.

Though it had been nearly a century since this region's hops industry was decimated by a disease called downy mildew, then eradicated by Prohibition, perhaps, they thought, it was time for a comeback.

Today, that resurgence is taking root in places like Oast House Hop Farm in Wrightstown, N.J., where about an acre of a former horse farm has been impaled with 20-foot poles, suspending vines bearing the flowers that give beer its bitter, floral, herbal, or fruity notes.

The hop yard, in its fifth season, is the work of Beau Byrtus, Art Rhea, and Marylu Hansen, weekend warriors who dreamed up the idea during a barbecue competition.

"We saw more and more craft brewers pop up. So, we said, maybe we should get into the supply chain," Byrtus recalled. "We were one of the only hop farms when we started, and now I think there's eight or nine," he said. "In the past year, I've probably had 20 queries. We're very open about trying to help because the industry needs it. If it's going to become solvent, we need more farmers growing hops."

After all, hops-growing in the Mid-Atlantic is still in its infancy.

Most U.S.-grown hops - 51,115 acres of them - come from the Pacific Northwest, which produces 42 percent of the world's supply, most of it dried and processed into pellets. By contrast, New Jersey and Pennsylvania each have about 15 acres, according to Hop Growers of America, a trade group.

But more growers and even some brewers are planting hops; the owner of 2nd Story Brewing in Old City has five acres, as of this spring, at a farm in Pottstown. And researchers at Pennsylvania State University and Rutgers University are working to develop a knowledge base specific to the local soil and climate.

Thomas Ford, an educator at Penn State Extension, estimates that, given that craft brewing represents a $4.5 billion industry statewide, Pennsylvania could support at least a thousand acres of hops.

But that industry needs help, Ford said.

"Almost every horticulture educator in Pennsylvania has received calls from growers looking for assistance," he said. But "there was no Pennsylvania-based information on production. There had been no varietal work done. Nobody had been looking at the insects and diseases in Pennsylvania."

So, Penn State is installing a one-acre, experimental hop yard, planting seven or eight varieties to identify best practices for growing hops without chemicals. Rutgers researchers are also planting a hop yard, and they've started a lab to test hops' alpha acid and essential oil content, which can be crucial information for brewers.

There has also been talk of starting a cooperative to share mechanized picking, drying, and processing equipment.

For now, most local growers handpick their hops when they're ripe in late August or early September, and sell them fresh, or "wet" - a logistical challenge since they must be used for brewing within 24 to 48 hours.

It makes for slow-going.

Just ask Ted Artz, of Holtwood Hops. He has been at it longer than almost anyone. Artz, a Drexel digital-media professor, lives in the city's Fishtown section, but has tended a quarter-acre of hops on his family farm in Rawlinsville, Lancaster County, for 11 years.

"In the 1800s, that area was known for hops," he said. "I wanted to see if hops could still survive there."

It could - with lots of care. He grows organically and offers hops either fresh or dried and vacuum-packed (starting at $25 per pound) or pick-your-own for $20 per pound. He estimates his hops cost twice as much as dried pellets.

"Is it financially viable? No, not yet," he said. "If you do the calculations, I pay myself 35 cents an hour or something. But it's working out in nature, it's really beautiful, and the smell of hops coming off the vine is really enticing."

John Mosovsky of Vista Farm in Orefield, outside Allentown, isn't bullish either. He planted four rows of hops alongside his vineyard and llama farm eight years ago, after learning of the shortage. He has sold variously to Victory, Manayunk, and Boxcar brewing, he said. But, given the labor involved, "it's not a real profitable crop."

Still, it's no worse than vegetable farming, which has become increasingly competitive, said Linda Shanahan of Barefoot Botanicals in Doylestown. Shanahan converted her vegetable farm to specialty crops, including 150 hop plants, over the last few years. Last year, she sold mostly to home-brewers.

Some local hop growers are farming novices.

Brad Harron, of Hops on the Hill Farm, near Easton, used to run a tree service and stumbled onto hops when he came into possession of a number of black locust trees, the rot-resistant wood preferred for hops poles.

Hop Hill Farm, a 2½-acre spread in Fleetwood, Berks County, is owned by Ashley and Tom Dietrich, whose day job is running a vehicle-repair business.

"We're still trying to figure out what works and what doesn't," Ashley Dietrich said. "Growing hops is very microclimate-specific."

Out of four varieties, two succumbed last year to downy mildew. But her Centennial hops went to Saucony Creek brewery in Kutztown (the owners, driving by, spotted the hops poles and pulled over to cut a deal).

Some brewers aren't waiting for a hops industry to spring up. Victory, for one, planted some trial hops this spring at its Parkesburg location.

And Deb Grady, who owns 2nd Story Brewing in Old City, doubled the size of her hop yard to five acres this spring at her Tilted Barn Farm in Pottstown. (She also has 10 acres of barley, her first such harvest ever, being malted at Deer Creek Malthouse in Glen Mills.)

Grady faces many of the challenges other growers face: high start-up costs, slow returns, and labor-intensive harvesting. She planted 5,000 rhizomes last spring that failed, setting her back a year.

"I don't think of these as obstacles," she said. "It's actually rather exciting to bring hops-growing back to Pennsylvania."

After all, in the brewery, she has a ready-made market for her fresh hops, which go into the mash tun within 12 hours of harvest. She's also exploring building her own dehydration kiln, or outsourcing preservation of the hops as her plants mature and produce more flowers.

"We're able to produce some beers that are very unique. Wet hop beers, they're kind of popular now," brewer John Wible said. Wible's interest in fresh hops is a lot like a chef's appetite for some fleeting seasonal ingredient, like ramps or sour cherries.

"You get a different hop character," he said. What that is depends on the type of hops and how they're grown, but "it's a way to be creative and explore the flavors that come along with that."

He hopes for enough hops to make two or three beers this fall reflecting Pennsylvania's terroir.

"This is one more step toward really, truly making a local beer."