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Craft brewing offers growing market to Virginia farmers

Ron Troyer, assistant brewer and bartender at the Backroom Brewery in Middletown, holds a glass of the farm's Golden Stout. The beer contains a 9.2 percent by volume alcohol content -- the highest of their selection of beers. Rich Cooley/Daily

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Billie Clifton, owner of Backroom Brewery in Middletown, looks over her stock of hops growing on her farm near Reliance in Warren County. Rich Cooley/Daily

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Ron Troyer, assistant brewer and bartender at the Backroom Brewery in Middletown, holds a glass of the farm's Golden Stout. Rich Cooley/Daily

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Ron Troyer, assistant brewer and bartender at the Backroom Brewery in Middletown, stands beside the mash ton where grain is inserted to start the brewery process. The brewery recently began using new equipment to enable brewing larger quantities of beer on the farm. Rich Cooley/Daily

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By Katie Demeria

MIDDLETOWN -- Farmers in the Shenandoah Valley are trying to tap into a growing industry -- and they are finding success.

The craft beer industry has been on an uphill trend for several years, according to a Virginia Farm Bureau news release. It has become so popular that August was designated Virginia Craft Beer Month.

And those breweries are demanding one important agricultural crop: hops.

Backroom Brewery began growing the plants in 2012 and brewing in 2013. Owner Billie Clifton said the business has been "extremely successful."

David St. Clair of Swover Creek Farms in Edinburg is hoping to open a farm brewery in the fall of this year, using his own hops.

"The craft brewing industry is growing by leaps and bounds, and the farm brewery aspect is going to catch on in a lot of different ways," St. Clair said. "There is a very large interest in growing hops in our area, because it's a good hop growing region."

Clifton pointed out that the growth of the craft brewing industry is demanding more and more hops, and Virginia farmers could easily become part of that market.

Hop growing was once very strong in Virginia, until the prohibition, she said.

"George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both grew their own hops," she said. "It's not new, it's old."

The industry did not recover after the recession, she said, but it is coming back now. Several years ago, she said, Virginia only supported 40 craft breweries. Now it sports more than 80.

"There's a serious hops shortage," she said.

It is only natural, then, that Virginia farmers try to take advantage of the demand.

"It's going to be really nice to have them in Virginia so you don't have to go to other states," she said. "The market is there."

Another benefit, Clifton said, is that a new, interesting crop will only help diversify Virginia agriculture. If hop growing continues to grow in popularity, she said, it could encourage people to continue farming.

St. Clair said farm breweries will only help areas such as Shenandoah County, as well, drawing tourists to the valley.

"Our intent is not to distribute beer, it's to have people come to the farm to have a farm experience," he said. "This is just another facet to give more exposure to folks, to agriculture, to knowing where their food is growing and how it's grown."

St. Clair and Clifton both said that brewers want to create a distinct type of beer, and using locally grown hops is the way to do that.

"I'm not focused on one," he said. "I'm making all types of beers, any time you come to the farm, it's going to be different. I want people to experience something new. That's the essence of craft brewing."

To learn more about Swover Creek, and to stay updated on when the brewery will be opening, visit http://www.swovercreekfarms.com.

Backroom Brewery will hold its final harvesting party of the year at 4 p.m. Saturday. Participants can help harvest hops while listening to live music. Food is provided. It will be held at 150 Ridgemont Road. The brewery's website is http://www.backroombreweryva.com.

Contact staff writer Katie Demeria at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or kdemeria@nvdaily.com

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