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As Craft Beer Thrives In Kentucky, Local Hops Producers Feel Growing Pains

Leah Dienes is up on a gray Tuesday morning with her two cats -- Saki and Hiro -- brewing beer. Saki and Hiro are working cats -- they help keep mice away from the bags of grain that sit just behind Apocalypse Brew Works in Louisville. 

Dienes is co-owner and head brewer at Apocalypse. Her great-great-uncles were brewers in the city, too. But that’s not why she got into brewing. She describes her fascination with beer as a hobby that went awry.

Apocalypse's beer is made in Louisville. And some of the grain is sourced locally. But when it comes to hops, Dienes has to import them from other parts of the country, or from around the world.

“We use some from New Zealand; they’re a big hops producer," she says. "And then the West Coast, it’s mainly the West Coast that’s producing. That’s where we’re getting a lot of them from."

Kentucky has no problem branding itself. The state is known for its horse racing, basketball, tobacco and, of course, bourbon. But when it comes to craft beer, locally-grown Kentucky hops, at least right now, just doesn’t cut it.

The Pacific Northwest is responsible for more than 90 percent of hops production in the U.S. The 27 breweries in Kentucky mostly buy the hops they need elsewhere, from places such as Washington, Idaho and Oregon. There’s not many options for breweries here that want to buy local as far as their hops.

About 90 miles from Apocalypse Brew Works, it’s a clear Saturday morning on a farm near Winchester, just east of Lexington. The Kentucky Hop Growers Alliance is having their monthly meeting to chat all things hops. The dozen or so attendees use it as a chance to air the concerns, and talk about the growth they see in local hops -- even selling them to breweries in Kentucky.

Shawn Wright is one of the attendees. He’s a horticulturist at the University of Kentucky. When asked about the commercial hops industry in the commonwealth, he says he's "cautiously optimistic.”

“There’s certainly a good market for locally-produced hops,” he says. “The big question is going to be the economics of it. We have challenges here in Kentucky that some of our growers out West don’t have to deal with. We have more disease pressure and things.”

Another immediate problem for Kentucky is supply. Right now, there are about 20 acres of commercial hops yards in the state. If you compare that to out West, there are more than 32,000 acres just in the state of Washington.

But there’s no reason Kentucky can’t eventually catch up to the West. Hops is native to Kentucky. And the Eastern U.S. was once a huge producer of hops. An outbreak of downy mildew changed that in the early 20th century. Now, most of the country's hops production is on the West Coast.

Attendees at the Hop Growers Alliance meeting see potential. Pete Lahni is considering getting into the business.

“I think there’s a lot of room to grow,” he says. “Everybody’s gotta go through their growing pains. It’s definitely an industry that can grow with the way that the craft brewing industry is growing out of control.”

There are 4-6 new breweries opening in the state this year, and beer production has an estimated economic impact of almost $500 million in Kentucky, according to the Brewers Association, a national trade group. Local hop growers want to cash in.

Back at Apocalypse, Leah Dienes says there’s a chance Apocalypse Brew Works could be buying locally-sourced hops soon. She recently got an email about it.

"They wanna meet and see what kind of hops and see if we’d be interested,” she says. “We use all the hops that they’re growing, which is a plus.”

There’s good reason to be cautious. But Dienes and others have good reason to also be optimistic. 

Roxanne Scott covers education for WFPL News.

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