About a decade ago Tom Barse was at an agricultural conference in Maryland when he was approached by a farmer named Ray Ediger, who said he had hops growing on his property for years.
“He thought that maybe I would be interested in coming in and checking them out,” recalled Barse, who owns Milkhouse Brewery at Stillpoint Farm. He soon made the trip with another brewer and a hop grower.
“We found this monstrous hop growing next to his chicken coop that could have taken over his chicken coop, and a fence next to the chicken coop and a big tree and another building. It was growing in pretty much in a wild state.”
Ediger grew up in Oregon and as a child would pick hops to make extra money in the summer.
He moved to the Fredrick County, Maryland farm more than 40 years ago and he saved the hop that was growing on the land mostly because he liked way it looked, and how it provided shade for the coop during the hot summer months.
But he never picked the hops, and never made beer with the yearly crop.
During their visit to the Ediger Farm Barse and the others picked some hops and soon made some experimental beers. At the time Barse figured that they were left over Cluster hops from when Maryland had a small hop industry in the 1800s.
“I wasn’t super excited about it,” Barse says. “We used it to dry hop some cask beers and occasionally we would use it to dry hop a light beer, but I never got super excited about it until Bryan Butler got involved with his project at the University of Maryland research farm.”
The Research Farm
Seeing a national interest and overall surge in the American hops industry, The University of Maryland built a hop yard at the Western Maryland Research and Education Center in Keedysville, and initially planted a dozen varieties to look at how they stood up to insect issues, disease problems, and the fertility requirements.
The center wanted to know how these hops could grow in Maryland and offer best practices to farmers on irrigation, trellising, and harvesting.
“In 2016, we put a call out to the brewers asking for breweries to come out and see what we were doing. And we didn’t get a very big response. We only had a couple of people show any real interest,” says Butler, the principle agent for agriculture and natural resources.
Barse was one of the brewers who came out and soon after began working with Butler as the program expanded to 24 varieties, was running trials, processing and making its own pellets. Along the way he suggested transporting and growing some of the hops being grown on the Ediger Farm. By 2020 Butler said the program was on a roll and poised to move into the next phase, but a severe storm in July of that month destroyed the crops.
“So, all of our information on this mystery hop was lost for the first time,” says Butler. It was kind of frustrating and kind of upsetting.”
It was during this time that Butler had been given another wild hop being grown on a family farm who had claimed it unique and different, and so he sent to USDA’s National Clonal Germplasm Repository.
“And it turned out though, that that variety was Centennial, and it wasn’t unique,” he said.
He was reluctant to send out the Ediger Farm hop should it be met with the same result.
Instead, it came back that the hop was completely genetically unique.
“And this is when the story really begins again. We knew we had something that was very different. But we really hadn’t grown it yet. We really hadn’t produced volume, the hop had never been in a commercial setting,” says Butler.
So in 2021 the group went back to building a hop yard, propagating the plants from the original plant, and in 2022 they planted first crops of what is now known as the Monocacy Hop under commercial conditions at the research farm.
Aroma, Flavor, and Availability
After confirming that the hop was unique, it was genetically tested and it “came back with a really weird alpha/beta acid mix,” says Barse.
It is 2.77% Alpha acid and 4.3 to 5% beta acid.
Monocacy is super productive. The researchers say it was producing approximately two pounds per plant in the first year, dry weight. In fact, it was so robust that the group had a hard time feeding it into the processing machine.
“It’s almost like a mixture between a Saaz and a Southern Cross,” says Barse. “So you have sort of a fruity floral, and a spicy, earthy, all in one. Imagine walking into a floral shop. You get the floral, you get the earth, you get the green, verdant green, all in one hop. And I’ve never actually encountered such a hop at all ever in my career. And I’ve been brewing since 1972.”
Right now Monocacy seems best suited for lighter styles like traditional pilsners or lagers, or a Belgian patersbier.
“It’s important to note that we are still in the data collection process,” says Barse. “We feel very positive about where we are in the process. We’re hoping to get an extension of our grant to continue studying it.”
There is excitement in Maryland. Butler believes that they are on a strong path with Monocacy and noted that it has been donated to the National Clonal Germplasm Repository.
“This plant can be used by other universities for propagators, or breeders to do with what they want,” he says. “We wanted all of the information that we got from this, everything from this plant is for everyone. We want Maryland to be noted as where it came from, and Maryland is doing the lion’s share of the heavy lifting here at first, but the plant will be available to anyone who wants it.”
Hear the whole conversation on the Drink Beer, Think Beer podcast. Download via Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, or wherever you download shows.
Some of the above quotes were condensed or edited for clarity.