FAIRDALE — Jonathan Ward is a coal miner who is part of a community heavily reliant on the industry’s outlook. But he’s not convinced coal is the future.
The southern West Virginia economy’s ups and downs, salary cuts and layoffs convinced Ward and his wife, Tiffany, that he had to have a backup plan — especially with two young children, Maezlynn and Oakleigh.
That backup plan is called Lost Ridge Farms, where Ward grows hops, a main ingredient in beer, right in his 5-acre front yard. He began the part-time business venture last spring, tending to the hop plants in the afternoon following his shift at the mine.
While the coal industry continues to battle natural gas and renewable energy, Lost Ridge has little in the way of regional competition. The Michigan-based Great Lakes Hops, which sells hop plants to local farmers, lists Lost Ridge as the only hops farm in West Virginia besides the West Virginia State University Extension Service.
Ward said the Mountain State has its share of hops farmers, but most are people growing it as a hobby instead of for business.
“I never dreamed I would be a hop farmer, or grow a garden, or anything like that,” Ward said at his home Wednesday. “I wanted to be like my dad — like a coal miner. It’s in my blood.”
The craft beer industry’s explosion in popularity gave Ward second thoughts, particularly with what he saw in small craft breweries in neighboring Ohio and Virginia. Nationwide, the craft beer market saw 10 percent sales growth and a 6 percent bump in production in 2016, making it worth $23.5 billion in total, according to the Brewers Association.
These local breweries typically don’t grow their own hops supply, instead ordering hops from farms such as Lost Ridge. Hops are used for flavoring in beer, and that flavor is dependent on pH level. Low-acid hops are used in pale ales, while high-acid hops are used in stouts.
The large majority of hop farms are concentrated in the Pacific Northwest, especially in the Yakima Valley area of Washington, according to the Hop Growers of America organization. Breweries in the east often order from these farms, but there is a notable difference in quality when fresh hops are delivered from somewhere closer to home, according to Tiffany Ward. She said Lost Ridge’s hops stood out to the North Carolina-based Red Hill Brewery, which has used them in its amber ale.
“You can always get hops in Oregon somewhere, but by the time you get them, they are dry and you probably have to freeze them right away,” she said. “As soon as [Red Hill Brewery] opened our bag [of hops], they could tell the difference.”
Lost Ridge’s closest business partner is perhaps Weathered Ground Brewery in Cool Ridge, which has used its cascade hops in the appropriately titled Lost Ridge Pale Ale. The beer has been featured at Foster’s Main Street Tavern in Beckley and Pinheads in Oak Hill.
The Wards expect business to bloom in Lost Ridge’s second year after spending much of 2016 laying its foundation. Last year, Lost Ridge successfully grew about 100 hop plants. They expect that number to quadruple this year and continue growing in the years ahead.
On Wednesday, 2017’s hop plants were just beginning to eke out of the ground. Jonathan Ward said they won’t have to wait too long for that to change. By July, the plants will be at the top of the 11 towering poles and wrap around the stringing cable the Wards are setting up in their front yard.
“They grow like green beans, except they’ll get to be about 20 feet tall,” Tiffany Ward said.
Jonathan Ward believes the hop farming industry in West Virginia could grow as fast as their plants. He said its development could spur the state’s craft beer industry as a whole.
He cited Michigan as one state in particular that has taken advantage of the craft beer boom — Michigan has 205 craft breweries that contribute $1.85 billion in economic impact, according to the Brewers Association. West Virginia, on the other hand, has 12 craft breweries that contribute $211 million in economic impact.
With West Virginia’s coal economy on unstable ground, Jonathan said turning to creative solutions like hop farming could help the state and its workforce in the long term. He said he wants the people of Fairdale, many of them coal miners, to explore business opportunities off the beaten path like he has.
“There is really good money in this and in the craft beer industry,” he said. “You just have to work for it. I believe this could be huge for the state.”
Reach Max Garland at firstname.lastname@example.org, 304-348-4886 or follow @MaxGarlandTypes on Twitter.