Although bourbon reigns supreme in the Bluegrass State, the glass is half full for Kentucky’s craft beer industry. In fact, the number of craft breweries in the state has more than doubled in the past five years. Thanks to this growth, a new market opportunity has also grown for farmers – hops.
“The demand for local beer is growing like crazy, and since Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles took office, he’s brought hop growers, university researchers, and brewers together to find out how hops can be a viable market for Kentucky farmers,” says Brent Burchett, director of the Division of Value-Added Plant Production for the Kentucky Department of Agriculture (KDA). “For the first time, we have a concerted effort to advance hop research, help farmers better understand what brewers need, and equip farmers with hop production resources.”
While not yet known for hops, Kentucky’s climate and landscape are ideal for the crop. The nutrient-rich soil and mild winters and summers – everything that helps grow some of the state’s other major crops like tobacco – are great for hops.
Scott Eidson knows this firsthand. He’s always had an interest in craft beer, working at a microbrewery in Florida and then continuing to homebrew in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In 2008, he and a friend planned to open a new brewery in Lexington using hops they would grow themselves, but they quickly learned that both hop farming and building a brewery were a lot to handle. Instead, Eidson co-founded Revolutionary Hop Farm in 2009 with Gaines Womack and a few friends.
“We decided to instead focus our efforts on growing hops to supply the breweries that were popping up across the state and country,” Eidson says. “We certainly started a revolution in the hop industry in Kentucky.”
As hop farming began to gain interest in the state, Eidson found that one of the biggest challenges he and other growers faced was simply the lack of knowledge and resources. To help fill this void, he founded the Kentucky Hop Growers Alliance in 2014 and currently serves as president.
“We’ve been working alongside the new stakeholders to better establish hops as a viable alternative crop in Kentucky,” Eidson says.
The organization has grown so much that Eidson is retiring the farm to focus solely on helping other local growers to benefit all of Kentucky.
Hop To It
Mark Maikkula, who co-owns Boyd’s Bottom Hops & Wildlife in Clark County, leaned on Eidson and the alliance to help him get started.
“There is so little local knowledge since hops are mainly grown in the Pacific Northwest,” Maikkula says. “In almost any endeavor, you can rely on the experience of others. There’s a lot of information out there on the internet but not locally.”
Maikkula is now the vice president of the Kentucky Hop Growers Alliance as well as the regional representative from the Southern district to the Hop Growers of America.
Both Maikkula and Eidson say another challenge farmers face is the cost of starting a hop yard.
“Hop yard startup costs are a huge obstacle for new growers,” Eidson says. “Minus labor, mechanical purchases and any other unforeseen costs, a new grower can expect to spend about $20,000 per acre.”
Maikkula adds that hops take three to five years to mature, similar to grapes in a vineyard, so it takes patience for a profit. However, just 1 acre of mature hops can return mighty profits, if viable, Eidson says. Both growers feel positive about the future of Kentucky’s hop sector.
“With the KDA coming on board and the association now having close to 30 dues-paying members, things are looking a lot better than when we started,” Maikkula says.