These guys wanted to start a craft brewery, but they decided to just grow hops instead

Fairfield farm is now a thriving venture
Local hops farmers are suddenly very popular
Local hops farmers are suddenly very popular
Local hops farmers are suddenly very popular
Local hops farmers are suddenly very popular
Local hops farmers are suddenly very popular
Posted at 7:00 AM, Apr 18, 2017
and last updated 2017-04-23 12:44:23-04

FAIRFIELD, Ohio -- Homebrewers Zach Marlow and Jeff Gaige dabbled with the idea of starting their own brewery. That is, until they founded Great Miami Hops in 2014.

The logo for Great Miami Hops.

These days, it's less vats and more vines. But they wouldn't want it any other way. Their Fairfield farm is nearly full scale entering its fourth season and is busting at the seams  -- one in a small, but growing, contingency statewide supporting the craft-beer industry.

"For us, hop farming just kind of clicked," Gaige said. "The more we looked into (a brewery) -- the logistics, the capital, the expertise -- we realized we might be behind the curve. We were trying to find something worth doing on a small scale with this land. So we said, 'Let's look if hops is a feasible thing.' "

So far, it has been. But like most hop farms in Ohio, it seems, it's done on a super-small scale.

Their outfit is particularly so; there's only a half acre and 500 plants, but Marlow and Gaige have bigger aspirations. They've already made inroads with two area breweries and, long term, hope to turn their green thumbs -- and hobby, ultimately -- into full-time careers.

Hops stringing at Great Miami Hops in Fairfield.

But even if they obtain that larger scale, their mission, they said, will remain the same.

"Our main goal, no matter how big or small, is to stay local," Marlow said. "We don’t want to call on people in Michigan or Indiana. We want to supply breweries here. And so far, that's what we've done."

Ohio used to be a hotbed for hops, a main ingredient in beer making, but that wilted with disease and the passing of Prohibition. Hop production moved out West and now, Washington, Idaho and Oregon are among the major makers.

These days, however, thanks to a thriving craft-beer industry, there's a smattering of hop farms in the Cincinnati-Dayton metro area -- Ohio Valley Hops in Maineville, Mankato Farms in New Carlisle, and Valley View in Milford, just to name a few.

A statewide growers guild boasts over 70 members, up from 10 commercial outfits five years ago, but in all, there are only about 400 planted acres. Extension officials estimate 6,000 acres are needed just to support Ohio breweries alone.

"The climate's good for it, and now there's modern methods of dealing with the mold and mildew problems," Marlow said. "It's growing rapidly. I mean, a decade ago, there was pretty much no hop production in Ohio. We wanted to bring it back to Cincinnati."

The future processing facility for Great Miami Hops in Fairfield.

Great Miami Hops is literally Marlow's backyard. The farmhouse on the property is 200 years old, he said - the oldest residence in Butler County. It was there they planted their first crop -- Cascade, Centennial, Columbus and Chinook, and last year, tore out half a dozen rows to add Michigan Copper, a new proprietary release. Great Miami is the only farm in Southwestern Ohio to have it. And it's all currently contracted with West Chester's DogBerry Brewing.

DogBerry co-owner Tony Meyer said the brewery has big plans for it; it's a unique opportunity, he added, to be the first in the area to brew with it.

"Normally, we don't want to rip up rows of plants," Gaige said. "But we're actually trying to give (DogBerry) some variety, something they wouldn't normally have."

"We can’t compete with large hop growers," Marlow added. "So we've catered to them as far as planting the varieties they would like."

Great Miami also has worked with Rivertown, which last year used Chinook to brew a Black IPA for its so-called Liquid Ingenuity Collection.

As for DogBerry, it's also a startup of roughly the same age. Meyer said they buy "everything" they can from Great Miami.

The only downside? "I wish we could get more," he said.

"It's nice to work with other small businesses, and there's certainly an attractive aspect to using locally grown ingredients," Meyer added. "It's a big bonus during harvest seasons. We can have fresh hops in the kettle literally half an hour after harvest."

Marlow and Gaige say they are actively looking for more land -- Great Miami Hops, as is, is landlocked, and they're routinely turning away new business as small brewers look for less expensive alternatives amid potential crop shortages. But, Gaige said, hops doesn't necessarily scale perfectly; while still labor-intensive, at their size, they can still do all the work by hand. They expect to produce 300-400 pounds of hops this year. Next year, that number could double.

A harvest party at Great Miami Hops.

"It's a big risk," he said. "It's like any small business. There has to be a big event where we cross the line to do this full time. We want to get there, and that is the goal, but we haven't gotten to that point yet."

They are remodeling a barn on-site for a production facility, so they don't have to outsource their hop harvesting. They also want to plant herbs -- rosemary, thyme, basil -- edible flowers, anything a brewer might want.

Crops that don't take up as much room -- a solution, for now.

"We want it to become like a brewing farm. Not just a hop farm," Marlow said. "If a brewery has an idea, we want them to be able to come to us and say, 'Hey, this is what I was thinking. This is what I want. Can you grow it?' We want to be able to accommodate that."