FAIRVIEW, W.Va. — One of West Virginia’s preeminent educators also has a pretty lucrative side hustle.
James P. Lewis, a professor of physics at West Virginia University, operates a hops farm in Marion County when he’s not busy expounding on Condensed Matter Theory.
“It takes a lot of time to get established,” he said last week on WAJR-FM’s “The Gary Bowden Show. “You never meet a first generation hops farmer.”
Lewis and his near-quarter ton of hops harvested have helped drive West Virginia’s similarly burgeoning craft brew industry at a time when worldwide demand for hops has far exceeded supply, according to Sam Mauzy.
“We’ve been buying hops from him since we opened — for four years,” said Mauzy, a partner at Big Timber Brewing in Elkins and President of the WV Craft Brewers Guild, last week on “The Gary Bowden Show.”
The industry, like many others that deal in food and beverage, is focused on how to decrease the transportation time in the farm-to-table process.
“A lot of them are looking for this local grown variety of hops that they can use in their brews,” Lewis said.
That makes a hops farm in West Virginia, where the craft beer industry has seen significant yearly growth, a valuable commodity — particularly after overproduction of hops in the 1990’s led to shortages today.
“A lot of farmers cut back,” Lewis said. “And, at the same time they decided to cut back, there were also some diseases that wiped out some sections of the world of the hops.”
According to craftbeer.com, there were 6,266 craft breweries operating in the United States in 2017, about 15.5 percent more than the previous year and 116 percent more since 2013.
That change has been similarly mirrored in West Virginia. In 2017, there were 26 local breweries open across the state — a 166 percent increase from the nine open in 2013, according to Mauzy.
Mauzy said the industry’s growth shouldn’t surprise anyone. While he has cited numerous factors that have led to this growth in the past, he said the experience at brew pubs is what draws crowds.
“You can sit there and kind of enjoy it and just sip on it and experience that flavor and that aroma and that whole experience of drinking the beer,” Mauzy said.
Local beers, in West Virginia and throughout the country, are a major draw for tourists and residents alike, Mauzy said.
“Most of these breweries having a brew pub, you can go in and get a sampler or a flight and try a little two ounce or a four ounce pour of something,” he said. “And see if you like it. If you don’t, try something else. Almost every brewery has a wide selection of beers.
And while hoppy, more bitter beers have been a growing trend in the industry, Mauzy said there’s far more to enjoy at each of the 26 breweries in the state, 19 of which are now a part of the state’s Craft Brewers Guild.
“Generally, if you’re willing to go through the variety of them, you’ll find something you like to start,” Mauzy added.
“Any beer is kind of an acquired taste. My first beer, I didn’t really like at all. That would have been like a Coors Light or something like that, and it kind of grows on you. Almost every brewery we have in the state has a light option that you can kind of start out on.”
In the meantime, Lewis hopes the industry can continue to grow while he comes to better understand how the state’s natural hops can be best used.
“Given that we don’t know what certain varieties might grow well in West Virginia, it takes time to figure that out,” he said.
The harvest season for hops begins in August.