Indiana brewers and farmers place hopes in hops

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. (WLFI) — Indiana is known for two staple crops, corn and soybeans, but a new crop has found some space to grow. Hoosier farmers are planting hops, one of the main ingredients in beer, hoping to stabilize a market that has sent prices on wild swings in the last several years.

“Hops that went for $3 a pound before the fire, [cost] $30 a pound after,” said Lafayette Brewing Company Owner Greg Emig, speaking about a 2006 warehouse fire in Yakima, Washington, which he said accelerated the price swings in the hop market. The rapid rise of microbreweries in the United States only compounds this problem. The number of American craft breweries has doubled in the last 10 years, to 2,800 today, according to the Brewers Association.

In that time, the average hop price of hops has doubled to about $3.70 per pound. While the price has stabilized, certain varieties of hops are increasingly difficult to find. Now, two local farms are leading the way in Indiana, planting acres of a crop that grew wild in the state hundreds of years ago, but has never been commercially produced here.

“First they think we might be crazy,” said Spencer Gray, president of Sugar Creek Hop Farm in Thorntown. “Most people are still learning what a hop is. They have no idea how it’s grown.”

Sugar Creek is Indiana’s first commercial hop farm. Gray planted seven varieties on about five acres earlier this year. He’s optimistic about the farm’s future, but said there are many challenges to growing hops. Typically grown in the Pacific Northwest, most varieties have adapted to the climate there, and may not grow well in Indiana’s temperature and humidity.

Gray isn’t sure what yield he’ll get this year, but doesn’t expect to be fully operational until 2016. He said that’s largely because growing hops is more work than other crops.

“It’s a challenge to get it started,” said Natasha Cerruti, a research assistant at Purdue University who grows an acre of hops at the school’s Throckmorton Agricultural Center. “You have to build a tall trellis system about 20 feet tall and then every year you have to tie strings to the top of the trellis and anchor them down.”

Hops are essentially flowers that grow on a vine. The trellis system supports that vine, allowing the plant to grow buds the farmers, and ultimately brewers, covet.

Compared to Gray at Sugar Creek, Cerruti is taking a more cautious approach on Purdue’s farm, which just South of Lafayette. She’s growing the hops to see which varieties are more likely to succeed in Indiana.

“Hopefully, we can provide and find hops that are specific to Indiana and that grow very well out here,” said Cerruti, who studied hops at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon before coming to Purdue.

Uncertainty in the hop market, especially among varieties most valued by brewers, has led to higher beer prices, according to Emig.

“[Hops] are one of the four essential ingredients,” Emig said. “They provide the bitterness and that aroma and flavors that balances out the sweetness in the malt, so their incorporation is vital.”

Aside from stabilizing prices and helping availability, Indiana hops can also play a part in the local food movement. If hops suitable for Indiana breweries are made in Indiana, brewers won’t have to look to the Pacific Northwest and Europe for the supply as they do today. To spread the idea of locally grown hops, Cerruti will host a tour of the hop farm on Aug. 21 to educate people on the benefits and challenges of growing hops.

Despite the challenges, Emig, Cerruti and Gray are all excited about the future of Indiana hops, knowing the demand for this tangled crop will continue for years to come.

“It’s what the consumer taste is driven on,” said Emig. “So yeah, no hops, no beer.”

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