By Brian Ojanpa
Free Press Staff Writer
WASECA — For hobbyist home-brewer and horticultural scientist Charlie Rohwer, it’s a research project made in beer heaven.
Rohwer, a research associate at the University of Minnesota’s Southern Research and Outreach Center in Waseca, has been growing hops at the facility since 2010.
Object: To create a Minnesota-friendly plant that will benefit the state’s agricultural interests while catering to the needs of Minnesota’s burgeoning craft beer industry.
“This coincides with the explosion in craft beers,” Rohwer said of his work, which has been utilizing a quarter-acre growing plot for hops, a bittering agent that balances the sweetening properties of malt in beer.
Rohwer said hops were widely grown in the Midwest in the 1800s before a crop disease pushed their production to the nation’s western states.
He said the hops challenge in Minnesota is to someday compete with the large-scale growers out West. Meantime, work at the Waseca facility continues in a proactive vein.
Rohwer said the goal of the research is to increase the knowledge base for people who want to get into growing hops, a viney growth supported by tall trellises whose flower clusters look like pot buds for a reason — the plant is in the marijuana family.
Until the 1960s a hop was essentially a hop, but USDA hybridizing efforts since then have produced dozens of varieties, including citra hops, which impart fruity notes to trendy flavored beers.
According to the American Brewers Association, craft beer production in the nation grew by 13 percent in 2011, with retail sales nearly 15 percent ($8.7 billion) of the $95 billion U.S beer market.
Minnesota has ascended to 26th in the nation in the number of breweries per capita.
By broad definition, craft beer is that which is produced by small, independent, traditional brewers.