Let’s face it, while we praise small breweries for being “local”, left unspoken is that the ingredients they brew with aren’t the slightest bit local. Virtually all breweries, whether small, regional, or national, source ingredients grown hundreds if not several thousands of miles away from where they are brewed. Often times, these ingredients are harvested on a completely different continent. Yes, a few breweries incorporate locally grown fruit, herbs, or spices into their brews, usually in a small limited release. While this is a great way to infuse a local terroir into beer, it still requires trucking in hops and grain over long distances to make it happen.
So when Carla Jean Lauter aka The Beer Babe asks us to contemplate what roles non-brewing, beer based businesses can play in the beer world, my hope is some how, some way, hop and barley farmers can work with breweries to create regions where beer has genuine local and distinctive terroir. Is this even possible in the United States?
Well, barley is pretty accommodating to being grown in different locales. It’s grown in 27 states, although the overwhelming majority is grown in North Dakota, Idaho, and Montana. Barley requires similar growing conditions to wheat. It’s not too much of a stretch to think barley could be grown more extensively in places like California, the Pacific Northwest, the Midwest, the Mid-Atlantic, and New England where plenty of the country’s leading breweries operate.
But it’s the hops that give beer its the most distinctive character, and hops are a far much more temperamental beast. They grow best where the temperatures are between 40-70 degrees F, meaning wide swaths of the United States are not good places to grow them. A new hop farm may require as much as three years of development so establishing new hop farms require considerable patience and investment. This explains why over 95% of the hops grown in the United States last year came from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. Sure, it’s possible to grow hops in your backyard garden, but the larger scale production required to support an ecosystem of a small but thriving local breweries appears elusive.
It’s also important to consider whether the marketplace will create the necessary financial incentives. Breweries in the US brag about sourcing rare and exotic hops from places like like New Zealand or South Africa, with beer geeks typically exclaiming “Cool!” when discovering their local brewery is sourcing some far flung ingredient. Will there ever come a point where instead, they respond with “Hey buddy, how about supporting your local hop farmer?”
It might happen. For example, there’s been recent initiatives to support hop farming in Nebraska. If hops could take root in Nebraska, places like Kansas, Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and New England seem plausible. Will it happen in the foreseeable future? We can only hope.