Hops and Revolution Grow on Spice Acres

A kitchen in a garden shed; an apothecary in a garage; a laboratory in the forest: Moonlight Brewing Co. isn’t really a brewery at all. At least, not the kind you’d recognize. And its beer is stranger still: redwood-twig-infused brown ales, mugwort-and-yarrow pales. Taped on a wall behind the tiny boil kettle is a hand-written reminder, redundant here among the breeze-blown dirt: “Beer is not an industrial product.”

I first visited Moonlight working on a book about the history of beer, and that message made solid an idea that had been floating through much of my research. For all its contemporary commercial trappings, its production and its packaging, beer is, at its core, a living thing. Made from plants and fermented by animals, the brewer’s human hand is only a guide on nature’s predisposed course: the transmutation of starch into sugar and sugar into alcohol, the ebb and flow of energy.

Or at least, that’s how it should be. The freshest beers — made from just-plucked hops and well-kilned grains, left unfiltered, full of living yeast — come closest to this punk-rock pure ideal.

Take hops. Hops are the flowery seed pods of a climbing, leafy vine-like plant; they look like tender green thumb-sized pine cones. Their folded petals hide pockets of resin called lupulin, which contains the flavorful, aromatic, bitter oils and acids that make beer taste like grapefruit and pine needle and geranium and white pear and hay and mint. Like beer, in other words. When fresh, that resin is wet and sticky and hop vines are prickly, tangled wires — harvesting cones is like fighting a cat, one veteran hopgrower told me. But it’s worth it, because hops deteriorate fast. Processing (crushing, drying, vacuum-sealing) preserves some character, but not all. Fresh is best.

These days, though, fresh is hard to find. Raw milk. Unpasteurized cheese. Fresh hops. One must know a farmer — or be one. Know a brewer — or be one. Lucky for me, I know both. I am both. And so this summer on Spice Acres began a humble revolution: We planted hops. Hops, and hope for fresher beer, better beer, and, crucially, local beer.

Hops: A History

Beer shouldn’t be an industrial product, but of course in many ways it is. The hop crop is global: massive monoculture farms in Central Europe, Washington State, Australia, even China. Your neighborhood brewer might be local, but chances are his hops are flown in from thousands of miles away. OSU research estimates Ohio brewers spend about $30 million each year importing hops. It wasn’t always like this. In America’s early brewing days, hopyards were small, family affairs scattered around the country. But a turn-of-the-century mildew plague and the cleansing flames of Prohibition wiped them out. What emerged from ashes was built by and for beer industry heavies like Anheuser-Busch and Miller. That meant consolidated megaplots growing the one or two varieties these brewers used, usually clones of European strains. Diversity died. Enter the big and the bland.

But things are changing. Ohio’s burgeoning hops industry is small. OSU leads the charge with pilot plots in Wooster and Piketon, where researchers are experimenting with a dozen different varieties. All told, a hundred acres of hops are growing around the state. (The average size of a single Washington State farm is five times that.) Now, a hundred acres, plus one humble row over by the Spice Acres pig sty.

First Shoots

We’re growing sixteen plants, each of which will sprout three or four main vines (technically, the shoots are called bines) and produce ten pounds of undried cones. We picked a range of strains: the common Cascade, famous for its classic citrussy character, but also odder fare like bushy English Viking, mild Slovenian Vijvodina, tropical New Zealand Pacific Gem, flowery Horizons, and resinous CTZ. How they’ll grow, and how they’ll taste, remains to be seen.

A noble plan! But an unknown future. We might discover local terroir (CTZ is rumored to be milder, less resinous here), or native-bred resistance to disease. We might strike out. We might strike gold. Kent Goldings, England’s most famous hop variety, was a random discovery on a lucky farmer’s field.

I’ll be reporting on our progress here, so stay tuned. And when we finally brew, I’ll toast to Moonlight, from one forest brewhouse to another, each solely of their place, but joined in defiantly non-industrial spirit.