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Farm looks to make all-Ohio beer possible

By JD Malone • Jul 4, 2016 at 11:00 AM

Barrels of beer are growing in Matt Cunningham’s backyard, lots of barrels of beer.

“It’s hard to put a number on it, but plenty,” Cunningham said as he ran a hand through thigh-high amber stalks of two-row malting barley at his Union County farm. “It’s a lot.”

The 60 rolling acres behind his house, and a row of telephone poles wound with 100 hop bines, represent half of beer’s classic ingredient list, along with yeast and water. Cunningham began growing barley and hops last year as way to diversify the family farm operation — 2,600 acres of corn and soybeans — and tap into a booming Ohio craft beer industry.

Barley is not uncommon in Ohio, and hops were a major crop 100 years ago before Prohibition wiped out the state’s breweries. But what makes Cunningham’s Rustic Brew farm special are a pair of tanks shoehorned into a former alpaca barn.

The tanks, one for soaking and one for drying, are the heart of Rustic Brew’s malting operation, one of just two in Ohio. Malt is made by germinating grain, then halting germination through hot air drying. Some malt is further toasted or even roasted to develop flavors and colors for everything from pale ales to pitch-black stouts.

Beer requires malt, and until now, Ohio brewers always had to look out of state to buy it. The big malt sellers are Briess, based in Wisconsin, and Euromalt, based in Belgium.

“This is the first time in 100 years that Ohio has had acres of malting barley,” said Brad Bergefurd, a horticulture specialist at Ohio State University Extension. Bergefurd has been circling the state for a few years giving talks to farmers about growing hops and barley for Ohio’s craft beer industry, which has grown to 173 breweries.

“We’ve been at it for four years. We’re getting a little industry developed,” he said. “It is starting to take off.”

Cunningham heard one of those talks right at the time corn and soybean prices tumbled in 2013 and again in 2014. He wanted to diversify his family’s farm and decided to see whether barley and hops had a future. He found out quickly that barley isn’t worth more than animal feed without a way to malt it, so last year, he invested $40,000 in the old barn. After word got out in the farm community, he’s heard from a lot of farmers who would like to sell him barley for malt, but his malt house is tiny.

“My scale is so small right now that it would take me three years to malt what I’m growing,” Cunningham said.

He’s now investing $100,000 into transforming a second pole barn into a new malt house, which would triple his capacity and give his operation room to grow. It should be ready later this year.

Craft brewers want local, and somewhat, exclusive ingredients, and they are helping people like Cunningham figure out how to meet expectations.

“We encourage everyone to do their marketing in advance,” Bergefurd said. “You can grow all the hops and barley you want, but if the brewers don’t want it, it’s a waste.”

Malt used in brewing needs to be consistent batch to batch and high quality, with flavor often less important, said Larry Horwitz, head brewer at Four String Brewing Co. He’s advised Cunningham to focus on flavor since matching Briess on consistency and quality is impossible.

“We would love to see more varietal base malts made with a lot of flavor in them,” Horwitz said. “I told him to compete on flavor.”

Horwitz compares working with growers like Cunningham to beer drinkers seeking out and interacting with craft breweries. It is all about finding out who makes something and how it’s made and supporting local economies. The craft beer industry has a way to go, he said.

“I say more than 95 percent of our beer is local ingredients,” he said, “but that’s because it’s mostly water.”

Hops have been at the center of the craft beer boom, and their bitter taste and tropical fruit aromas have made a flood of India pale ales the most popular craft beer style. The vast majority of hops are grown in Oregon and Washington, and brewers often contract years in advance. Buying a large amount of hops locally would be a game changer.

"We've been talking about it for three years," said Mary MacDonald, executive director of the Ohio Craft Brewers Association. "There has been exponential growth of hops grown in Ohio, but they need to be of a consistency, quality and packaging that my members need."

Like barley, hops need to be processed — often formed into pellets and frozen — in order to keep, and Ohio’s growers are still focusing on the growing part, Bergefurd said.

“There are a lot of challenges that haven’t been figured out yet,” Cunningham said of hop farming. He hopes to expand his hops but is farther ahead with barley. He sees a nice business in beer ingredients, but knows it will never take over the farm.

“I hope that a third of our farm is barley and wheat for malt," he said.

Brewers are talking about all-Ohio beers. Cunningham has heard from a number of them. Horwitz thinks Four String will cook one up this fall if the hops are good enough, but having a year-round Ohio brew is likely years away.

"(Brewers) are interested in access to quality ingredients," MacDonald said. "In an ideal world, we can make an all-Ohio beer one day."


©2016 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)

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