You might not think of Ohio’s agricultural industry when you quaff a craft-brewed beer, but you should. Four basic ingredients comprise beer making: grain (principally barley but also other grains such as corn, rye, wheat, rice and oats); hops (to bitter and add flavor); yeast (for fermentation); and water. The varieties of beer are endless, because the ingredients used can be combined in so many ways. A common thread exists with these artisan crafted beers – agricultural products form the basis of these beverages, their piquancy, aroma and texture.
Beer has been present in human culture for millennia. Recent archaeological research suggests that some small cereal grains were originally cultivated ages ago out of a desire to brew a beer-like drink, rather than food production. And surprisingly enough, the pilgrims consumed beer on the long journey to the New World, rather than water. Water could harbor nasty bacteria and turn bad on a long voyage, so beer was thought to be safer to consume.
The Ohio Hops Growers Guild reports that more than 50 hop growers, with over 100,000 hop plants in the ground, farm in Ohio. And the numbers are rising due to the extraordinary resurgence of locally-produced beers and their consumers. Nationwide prohibition began in January 1920, which greatly diminished the number of small local breweries in Ohio. With the drop in demand for products such as barley and hops, farmers abandoned these crops for others that were more profitable. But with the growing interest and consumption of locally-crafted beer, more farmers are stepping into the fray of growing hops, barley, and other cereal grains.
Growing barley or hops may help farmers achieve the diversification needed in today’s challenging agricultural business landscape. Rustic Brew Farm, located near Marysville, grows barley and converts the grain to malt in their malt house. A malt house is a structure where cereal grains are placed, water is added to induce sprouting, and then the sprouting is stopped by drying out the grain.
According to the Ohio Craft Brewers Association’s latest economic impact report published May 2019, there are about 300 breweries in Ohio producing 1.3 million barrels, which results in an economic impact of nearly $1 billion annually. Destination Delaware’s website, https://www.visitdelohio.com/places/craft-wines-and-brews, lists 10 craft breweries within Delaware County, pointing to the popularity of locally-produced suds.
For brewing, two-row barley (versus four-row) is preferred, as these barley varieties produce more sugars that brewers seek. Four-row barley contains more protein and is used in animal feed. And in some cases, what leaves the farm comes back to the farm. Many craft breweries work with local livestock farmers to recycle their spent brewing grains as livestock feed or compost the spent grain to augment soils.
Owing to the positive impact that Ohio’s craft breweries have on local agriculture, the Ohio Farm Bureau commissioned a central Ohio brewer to create a beer named “Cover Crop,” which commemorated the organization’s 100th anniversary in 2018. Aptly named, Cover Crop “…honors the revival of a farming practice that sustains the land and its surrounding environment,” according to the Ohio Farm Bureau.
Barley and other small cereal grains offer additional benefits beyond a brewed beverage. Collectively, these small grains can serve as cover crops in field rotations. Rotating barley, planted in the fall and harvested early, helps future plantings of corn and soybeans because it improves soil quality. Adding a small cereal grain like barley into rotation also helps truncate weed life cycles. And small grains establish roots quickly, which improves soil infiltration.
Cover crops increase the soil’s ability to hold water, provide pollinator habitat, cover for wildlife during winter, and protect soil from wind/water erosion. Perhaps more importantly, cover crops feed soil microbes through their roots and provide shelter for these critters.
Soil microbes serve as the “super heroes” of a field’s substrate. Strong soil microbe populations translate into heathier soils and bigger yields. They recycle nutrients, build up the soil, and give it structure. These tiny organisms include yeasts, protozoa, bacteria, worms, algae, beetles, and fungi that process the soil into rich humus. Good humus and stable microbial populations can reduce crop diseases and plant stress.
May 11 began National Craft Brewing Week. As you sip a locally-brewed beer in celebration, remember agriculture’s substantial contribution to your libation and the role of cover crops (like barley) to conserve soil.
Kim Marshall is the communication specialist for the Delaware Soil & Water Conservation District. For information, go to www.soilandwater.co.delaware.oh.us.