A Marion County hop grower says demand is frothing over.
What’s better than a West Virginia–brewed craft beer? One made with West Virginia–grown hops, of course. James Lewis’s Spring Water Farms in Marion County is making it possible.
By day, Lewis teaches physics at West Virginia University. But at home, he has 100 acres to manage. He wanted an alternative to cows and, six years ago, started growing hops. “The climate here is very similar to the climate in Germany and the Czech Republic, so I thought, ‘I bet you we can grow hops here,’” he says. “I started it as a trial and, about four years ago, we started selling our hops.”
Hop vines, called “bines,” produce flowers shaped like small, soft cones. Added to a brewing beer, fresh or preserved hop flowers balance the sweet malt with bitterness and, sometimes, a citrusy character, and add a floral aroma. They also help preserve beer.
Hops are easy to grow, Lewis says. In spring, the grower plants rhizomes, or underground stems, in hilled-up soil. Several bines emerge the first year and, in the second year, the grower trains the bines up tall trellises. They reach full production in the third year. Harvesters cut the bines each August and remove the flowers.
Lewis grows varieties called Cascade, Centennial, Columbus, and Fuggle. He and friends harvested 250 pounds from his two-acre hopyard in 2017. With most of those plants now at full maturity, he hopes to harvest 500 pounds this year.
Big Timber Brewing in Elkins has used Lewis’s hops in its seasonal West Virginia Wet Hop Ale. It’s said to have a much fresher hop taste than beer made of preserved hops.
A worldwide hop shortage is expected to continue for years, and there’s a practically bottomless market near here. “Something like one-third of the U.S. population is within five hours of West Virginia,” Lewis says. “There are so many brewers that West Virginia could supply that I think this is a crop that can really help West Virginia’s economy.”
Lewis invites other growers to plant on his land and operate as a co-op, sharing equipment and effort to make the process more efficient and cost-effective. “If anybody wants help getting started, I’d be happy to help them,” he says.
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