- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 18, 2017

LUCKETTS, Va. — Unlike the thirsty visitors who roll off bustling U.S. Route 15 to sample them, the hops grown at Black Hops Farm don’t travel far.

Not 200 yards past the plot of green vines climbing their 20-foot trellises, a sprawling new brewery boasts shiny vats that deliver craft beer, flavored with hops from those bitter plants. The hops had one pit stop: inside a warehouse just across the parking lot, where they were processed in a 1972 Slovenian wolf picker and heated in a handmade kiln.

Jonathan Staples, owner of the 3-year-old Black Hops Farm and Vanish Farmwoods Brewery, displays quiet pride in showing the seed-to-suds life cycle of his hops.

Though the U.S. is the world’s biggest hops producer, Virginia has been nowhere near the top state. With the first and largest hops processing facility in the mid-Atlantic on his property, Mr. Staples is at the forefront of a trend that is putting the Old Dominion’s hop farming industry on the map: craft beer, brewed and sipped on the same land on which its ingredients are grown.

“The craft beverage industry in Virginia is one of the fastest-growing industries,” said Basil Gooden, Virginia secretary of agriculture and forestry, who calls Black Hops Farm “one of our models of trying to spur innovation in Virginia.”

Mr. Staples owned bars and restaurants in the District of Columbia before stumbling upon this 53-acre plot of land, a former equestrian arena. His young daughter was taking riding lessons, and he visited the property on a whim when he saw it was for sale. He made a low offer. The owners refused, and then they called back — developers were coming for the land, and they wanted to get rid of it sooner. In 2014, the property was his for $1 million.

At the time, the new landowner had never ridden a tractor. “It was in complete shambles,” Mr. Staples said.

Now, fresh lumber and steely decor disguise the former riding facility, and the onetime horse stalls serve as bathrooms.

Business is thriving, he said as employees were setting up for a big event in the afternoon and members of American Agri-Women stopped by for a tour.

With its healthy bustle and revived land, Black Hops Farm can be seen as a microcosm of the industry, a byproduct of the hipster craze that has revolutionized American beer.

Craft brewing and local hops farming represent a source of economic growth for Virginia, particularly for Loudoun County. In four years, the number of craft breweries in the county has jumped from three to more than 20, said Kellie Hinkle, agricultural development officer for Loudoun’s Department of Economic Development.

The number of craft breweries in Virginia has increased by more than 220 percent since 2012, according to the Brewers Association, and the industry has a $1 billion economic impact on the state.

“We’re looking to position Virginia as the craft beverage capital of the East Coast,” Mr. Gooden said.

Toward that end, the state has offered Agriculture and Forestry Industries Development grants to farms if counties are willing to match them. Mr. Staples received a $40,000 grant, matched by Loudoun County, for Black Hops Farm.

Since 2012, some $1 million in AFID grants have been channeled to eight craft breweries, which source an average of 63 percent of their ingredients locally. With the grants, these breweries have invested $45 million in capital and created nearly 200 jobs, said Cassidy Rasnick, deputy secretary of agriculture and forestry at the Virginia governor’s office.

Engine of growth

County officials are quick to laud the craft brewing trend as an engine of economic growth. George Anas, the Rockingham County director of economic development and tourism, said the increase of craft breweries has brought in revenue for farmers, kept younger generations coming back to the agricultural area and attracted tourists.

“People are coming back and getting involved in this industry,” he said, and the county is eager to encourage the trend.

Mr. Gooden said the industry especially has helped the state’s rural areas, many of which have not experienced the prosperity of Northern Virginia and other urban centers.

“With a brewery or winery, you can literally open up in the middle of nowhere and people will come,” Mr. Staples said. “There are very few things you can do that with.”

Virginians have grown hops for centuries, but on a modest scale and not commercially. The biggest American hop producers are in the Northwest. Washington, Oregon and Idaho hold almost 97 percent of the acres of commercial hops in North America, according to Hop Growers of America, the industry’s trade group.

The number of growers in Virginia has skyrocketed. Though numbers are only an estimate, 52 respondents completed a recent growers survey in the state. In 2014, hop production in Virginia didn’t even register in national reports.

Aside from the grants, market demand is leading entrepreneurs such as Mr. Staples to hop cultivation. During recent hop shortages, bigger breweries have contracted out for most of their hop supplies, Ms. Hinkle said, increasing hop prices and local demand.

Growing the hops locally allows brewers to avoid some of the market fluctuations, and hop farmers can make a nice profit. Because hops grow upward, they don’t take up much land. On top of all that, hoppy beers, such as India pale ale, are trendy.

Another cause is less quantifiable. As with the farm-to-table food trend, the craft beer movement is cultivating its own preference for local sourcing, a farm-to-table brewing culture.

“We see in Virginia a creative group of entrepreneurs around the agricultural sector, younger people really getting excited about the whole experience,” Mr. Gooden said. “People are looking more for experience. They want to know more about the food they’re consuming.”

Craig Nargi, owner of Stable Craft Brewing in Waynesboro, grows hops on his riding farm and brewery. He said visitors are attracted to more than the beer.

“Growing hops on our land connects the tourists to the whole beer process,” he said. “It becomes this experience when they come to us. And when you connect a person to the experience, they are not going to forget about you.”

Mr. Staples also has tapped another niche in the industry. He processes hops for other farmers, pelletizing them in a repurposed wood chipper so they can be stored year round. The processing just covers his costs, he said, though he hopes it eventually brings in a profit.

At the brewery, 20 beers are on tap, from IPAs and bocks to two dark English sweet stouts.

The small but expanding group of Virginia hops growers has a spirit of cooperation as it establishes the state industry’s reputation.

“Our purpose was to be a resource for other farmers,” Mr. Staples said. “The industry is in such an early phase that it’s really a collaborative industry — there’s a spirit of cooperation, not competition.”

For Mr. Staples, growing hops is also a way of conserving the land.

“At $10,000 to $15,000 per acre, farmland here is going to be used for houses,” he said. “We’re using beer as a way to preserve the land, to show that farmland can provide a return. It’s using the market economy to preserve land rather than zoning policy.”

He is optimistic about the industry and its benefits for the region.

“There aren’t that many things you can do in a rural environment to create jobs and get young people to stay,” he said. “This is a way to make the rural economy come back.”

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