In his years as a statewide USDA agency head, Steve Maurer could recite agricultural data from decades past. He could also appreciate a good beer; he noted that a century ago, German farmers grew a lot of barley in Ohio so that it could be malted for the German brewers who also settled in the state.
Twenty years ago, Maurer said that Ohio could again grow barley and hops for the smattering of local craft breweries. He was not obsessed, but was persistent in dreaming of an all-Ohio beer. No frackin’ way, the skeptics might have said.
But a happily hoppy session ale called No Frackin’ Way, tapped April 24 by Little Fish Brewing in Athens, became what is probably the first all-Ohio brew in over 100 years—made from barley grown and malted at Rustic Brew Farm near Marysville, and hops from Ohio Valley Hops near Cincinnati.
Hobbyists and farmers all over the state have grown hops in recent years and used them in home brews and microbrews—but malted barley was the missing link. Until recently, there were no “malt houses” in the state to process the grains that were ready for malting. (The malting process determines the texture and color of the beers and ales.)
Ohio is now home to two malt houses. Based out of Cleveland, Haus Malts LLC has malted barley from Maine and is soon expected to produce its first Ohio-grown malt. Rustic Brew operator, Matt Cunningham has malted locally grown barley for several Central Ohio craft brewers and hobbyists.
“I’m a fourth generation farmer in my family—corn, beans, wheat,” said Cunningham. “My grandpa may have run barley way back when.” After graduating from OSU, Cunningham went back to Marysville to farm with his dad. He was already looking to diversify his crops when market prices for corn and soybeans dropped in 2012-13. With the growth of the craft brewing industry, he decided to learn about hops and barley.
His winding road was seemingly lined with orange barrels rather than beer barrels. At first, he thought all he needed to do was raise barley but soon realized that the barley had to be malted, so he studied that process. Then he got a food-processing license from the Ohio Department of Agriculture.
“If I’d known it would take this much to get through, I wouldn’t have done it” Cunningham said. “But I got so far into it, I thought, ‘I’ve got to finish now.’”
Fortunately, Cunningham said, he could turn to Dr. Eric Stockinger at The Ohio State University for advice. Stockinger has been researching different barley cultivars for eight years at OSU’s Wooster research campus, and has become the state’s expert on malting barley. (OSU has a hops expert, too—Brad Bergeferd of the South Centers Extension facility in Piketon.)
Jimmy Stockwell, who co-founded Little Fish in Athens last year, said the university expertise—and the passion of brewers and other entrepreneurs—is coming to a head.
“This is a milestone for the brewing industry in Ohio. Craft brewing is exploding, and now the ancillary industries are coming online,” he said. In addition to malt houses, Ohio now has a commercial hops farm and pelletizers to process the hops flower into the pellet form preferred by brewers. These supply-chain businesses provide marketing channels for hops and barley growers—creating local jobs and all-Ohio beer.
Little Fish envisions farm-to-table beer. When it opened a year ago, Little Fish’s first beer was a saison with organic Ohio spelt (supplemented with commercial barley malt). Soon, they produced a beer with organic Ohio corn—one that didn’t need to be malted.
“What makes No Frackin’ Way special is that, since Prohibition, it’s the first [beer] brewed with Ohio barley, malt, and hops,” he said. “We’re just trying to keep it local.”
Stockwell and head brewer, Sean White have had a business relationship with Andrew and Craig Martahus, the father-son team behind Haus Malt in Cleveland. When they learned about Cunningham and Rustic Brew on Instagram (a photo of his barley fields) and met him earlier this year at an Ohio Craft Brewers Association event, they jumped at the chance to try his Ohio-grown barley.
Frank Barickman, head brewer at Restoration Brew Worx in Delaware, met Cunningham when he came to the Brew Worx on his birthday with his family.
“A lot of people come in here and say: ‘I do this, I do that’ and we exchange cards,” Barickman said. “Most of them I don’t hear back from. But he followed up, and it was a good thing.”
Barickman bought 500 pounds of Cunningham’s malt and used it to brew nine barrels of Ohio Pale, an American pale ale tapped in mid-June. Alas, he did not have Ohio-grown hops for this brew. He has used Ohio hops in other beers and intends to do so again when they’re harvested in September.
Ill Mannered Brewing in Powell and Paradise Brewing in Cincinnati are also using Cunningham’s malt. Maybe one of them will be able to honor the all-Ohio beer cheerleaders with a Stockinger Saison, or Bergefurd Brown Ale. Maybe Mad Maurer’s Pale Ale.
But it’s got to be good.
“We think it’s great to do this locally—but it’s all about quality,” Cunningham said. “If it’s local, but it’s crap, we don’t want to do it just to say it’s an all-local beer.”