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The quest for the all-Maryland beer

Hops is a key ingredient in making beer. But while more breweries are opening in Maryland, the amount of hops being grown here is small potatoes when compared to other states.

Just look at Michigan, where Pam Miller and other farmers started growing hops to help feed the booming craft beer industry there.

"When we were starting up our farm, there was maybe 100 acres in the whole state of Michigan back in 2011," Miller said. "Now we’re pushing 1000 acres."

Miller grows 14 acres of hops. By comparison, it’s estimated in Maryland there are about 25 acres of hops planted statewide.

But geography and climate figure in here. Miller’s farm is not far from the 45th parallel, which is the latitudinal sweet spot for growing the plant that gives beer its flavor.

“The right rainfall, the right temperatures, the right daylight hours, everything that that plant needs,” she said.

The rule of thumb is that you need to be above the 35th parallel to grow hops. Think the Tennessee-Mississippi border. Maryland is about the 39th parallel; okay, but not exactly ideal territory.

Tom Barse, who owns Milkhouse Brewery in Frederick County, is growing an acre of hops. He said they grow here just fine. The trick is finding the right kind of quality hops that can grow well in Maryland and be resistant to pests and mildew.
"Some varieties are easier to take care of in a little bit drier climate than we have," Barse said. "And some varieties it’s too hot and humid here in the summer time."

Barse is working with Bryan Butler, an extension agent with the University of Maryland, testing which varieties of hops will grow best in the state. They plan to pass that knowledge along to other farmers.

Butler is growing 24 different varieties on a half acre at a research farm in Washington County. He said he wants to know if farmers can grow "enough hops, good quality hops to really feed this industry in Maryland."

In places like Michigan where hops are plentiful, craft brewers are touting homegrown ingredients as part of their marketing strategy to make beer local. Lester Jones, chief economist for the National Beer Wholesalers Association, said it’s worth a shot for Maryland brewers who want to do the same thing.

"That might not be like the best beer in the world but it may have an appeal to someone who really wants a local beer," he said.

In his tasting room, Barse offered up a sample of a beer he’s brewed at Milkhouse, a saison, made with Maryland grown hops and barley.

"So I’m going to give you a taste, and I think you’ll decide that, yeah, we can do this in Maryland," Barse said.

Barse has a farm brewer’s license. As long as his beer has something in it that he has grown on his farm, Barse can brew up to 15,000 barrels of beer annually, and he can self-distribute as much as three thousand barrels. He can also sell beer by the glass in his tasting room.

Barse was the first farm brewer in Maryland. He got permission from the legislature to do it in 2012. Now he says there are around 10 farm brewers in the state. "It’s not cool just that you have Maryland ingredients in you beer," he said. "I mean it’s cool, but if the beer isn’t any good, what difference does it make?"

John Lee is a reporter for WYPR covering Baltimore County.
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