Craft beer is sweeping the nation and changing the beverage industry. Parts of the farming industry have also undergone some major changes thanks to the surge in popularity of small-batch brews. Craft beer uses more key ingredients per batch than their large, national competitors. According to a report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the average craft beer uses 3-7 times as much malt per barrel as a mass market beer. In addition to malt, which comes from barley, the demand for hops to brew IPAs has increased dramatically.
By selling directly to breweries, which are often small, local businesses, farmers are able to cut out the middleman, meaning more money is kept in their pocket. Much like the trend of farm-to-table food, farm-to-keg beer is garnering interest. Because growers are working hard to meet this increased demand, many local farmers and brewers have developed personal relationships. These relationships are often critical to both parties’ success.
The United States is the world’s largest hop producer, with most hops being grown on farms in the Pacific Northwest. In addition to selling to farmers across the country, hop farmers export their hops all around the world. As the demand for hops continues to climb, more farmers across the country are beginning to try their hand at growing hops and selling to local craft breweries in their states. Though it can present challenges, especially in the first few years, these crops can be extremely profitable.
Barley is another specialty crop that farmers have begun to embrace in conjunction with the growing craft beer scene. Malt comes from barley when the grains germinate after soaking in water and then are dried with hot air. In many regions of the country, wheat is the preferred grain because of the higher yields. When farmers are growing grain for feed, wheat makes much more sense. While it may not be economical to grow feed barley, growing it for craft brewers can mean a nice profit for farmers. One farmer gave the comparison that “Growing one acre of high-quality malting barley is like growing two-and-half acres of quality wheat.”
Like any new crop, it can be expensive to begin planting hops or barley. Switching fields over present various challenges, and there can be a learning curve. It is usually at least four or five years before farmers begin producing at a level that brings in a profit. There is a lot of money to be made, but that money is down the road and requires a large investment upfront. Because of this, it can be difficult for new farmers to begin growing these types of crops. But some of the farmers who choose to branch into these new crops aren’t doing it solely for the profit. For many, beer is a passion or hobby and they enjoy the opportunity to support local breweries.