RICHWOODS, MO. • Les Nydegger bought 55 acres of rolling woodland west of De Soto about 15 years ago, thinking he would use the land for hunting and fishing some day. But earlier this year, after retiring from a quarter-century-long career at Anheuser-Busch, he decided he hadn't gotten quite enough of the beer business.
So he cleared an acre of forest, stuck 20-foot-tall cedar poles in the ground and planted hops.
"We thought it would be a neat thing to do, especially for the craft brewers," Nydegger said, standing near his fledgling hop yard, about an hour and a half southwest of St. Louis. "This is my chance to be a farmer."
Nydegger has company. In the past several years at least three other area brewers and farmers have planted hop yards, joining a surge of new growers around the country who are trying to cultivate beer's key flavoring ingredient.
"It's all over the nation," said John Henning, a geneticist who breeds and researches hops for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's hops breeding program in Corvallis, Ore. "I field calls from people from Alabama, Arizona, California. Everybody wants to get into it."
The boom in small-scale hop farming stems in part from the all-things-local ethos in today's food culture, and the continuing interest in craft brewing. But many growers say they're attempting to decentralize a hops industry long dominated by growers in the Pacific Northwest and Europe, where, combined, farmers grow about 80 percent of the world's 120,000 hop acres.
"We were really interested in creating beers crafted from ingredients from our region," said Marika Josephson, of Scratch Brewing Company in Ava, Ill., which harvested its first hop crop last year. "To a certain extent, it's about control."
A turning point that launched many new growers came in 2007 when weather conditions in Europe and a warehouse fire in Washington's Yakima Valley destroyed a huge chunk of the globe's hops. The remaining hops went to fulfill contracts with giant international breweries, leaving craft brewers scrambling.
"Smaller brewers started saying: 'This is kind of crummy. We need a better source of hops,'" said Joel Mulder, a hop farmer and managing director of the Michigan Hop Alliance, which formed four years ago with five growers.
Many of the new hops growers are idealistic first-time farmers who are passionate about beer, and some are lured by the fact that hops are a high-cash crop that can be grown on a relatively small piece of land. (An acre can produce 2,000 pounds, enough for about 2,000 barrels of the average craft ale.)
In New York state, 75 growers have planted hop yards in just the last few years — a phenomenon supported by demand from microbreweries and their craft-conscious customers who are willing to shell out more for specialty beers.
"If we didn't have 100 microbreweries in the state, then we probably couldn't compete on price with the Pacific Northwest," said Steve Miller, a hop specialist with Cornell University's cooperative extension.
Much of world's hops are grown for their bittering, "alpha" acids, and end up in the light lager beers that dominate the beer market (Budweiser, for one). So while the shortage of 2007 has long been reversed — and was followed by a glut of hops in the ensuing couple of years — craft brewers still find themselves scrounging for the aromatic varieties used in the beer styles favored by craft beer drinkers.
"For (brewers) who want aroma, they're begging already, and it's only the beginning of June," explained Stan Hieronymus, a St. Louis-based beer writer who is writing a book on hops.
Some brewers say they're so wary of the hops market, they avoid relying on hops altogether. At St. Louis' Perennial Artisan Ales, the beer lineup is in constant rotation, largely because brewmaster Phil Wymore remembers the 2007 crisis from his days at Chicago's Goose Island Beer Company.
"We do a lot of one-offs, so we're not that dependent on a single hop," Wymore said. "I never want to put myself in that hop-dependent situation again."
Dan Kopman, of the St. Louis Brewery (aka Schlafly), needs a classic English hops called East Kent Goldings for the brewery's signature pale ale — and has to secure contracts years in advance to get it. But he's also on a constant, competitive search to find the latest, interesting variety. Last year he contracted with a hops grower in Tasmania, for a Tasmanian India Pale Ale, to be released this fall. "We're looking for varieties two to three years out," he said. "You have to be way, way, way ahead."
While growers here are hoping to fulfill some of the need, they face some challenges. Hops are notoriously difficult to grow, and grow better in climates north of Missouri's that are cooler with less disease-causing humidity.
"We're high enough in latitude," said Matt McCarroll, a chemistry professor at Southern Illinois University, who planted a hop yard near Murphysboro in 2009. "The real challenge is mildew and pests."
Another is money. Hops are expensive to get established, and even more expensive to process.
"You have to harvest it well, and you need special equipment. It's important to dry them quickly and well," Hieronymus explained. "We're talking about millions of dollars of investment for equipment you're using six weeks a year."
Some hop growing organizations, including Gorst Valley Hops, in Wisconsin, and the Northeast Hop Alliance, based in New York, are overcoming that by sharing equipment. McCarroll says he's been thinking about setting up a similar arrangement in Southern Illinois, and is even experimenting with a test patch of barley, hoping to make an all-local brew.
But some brewers question whether that's wise or even viable.
"The whole idea that we're going to brew a beer that's made from ingredients grown here, that's cool," Kopman said. "But can you keep brewing that beer?"
Charleville Vineyard and Microbrewery in St. Genevieve has about 75 hop plants in the ground, and used the yield for a limited edition brew last year, but still needs to source hops elsewhere. Their hops, essentially, are a novelty.
"But it's enough to do small estate batches," said Tait Russell, who handles beer marketing and distribution for Charleville.
James Altwies, at Gorst Valley, says he thinks the only way for small-scale hop farmers to make the business work is to show brewers they're getting something special, worth the $12 or $13 a pound growers need to charge. A small-scale grower, Altwies said, can dry the hops at lower temperatures, and even customize the final product to produce a certain finish or bittering.
"It's hot to be local, and people will pay for that," he said.
Some small-scale growers are even hoping to strike hops gold in their own yards and greenhouses. At Scratch Brewing, Josephson and her partners found wild hops and are trying to propagate them.
"They're actually really hardy, and we really like the flavor," she said. "I think they have a lot of potential."
But Nydegger hopes the business will grow beyond the experimental stage. He's growing the hops for his friend and former A-B colleague, Florian Kuplent, now the brewmaster at Urban Chestnut Brewing Company.
"We're starting small. But if it takes off, I have 50 acres I can plow under," he said, pointing toward a thick forest of cedar. "There are a lot of woods back there."