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From seeds to suds: Wexford farm grows hops for local craft brews

| Friday, July 12, 2013, 7:22 p.m.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Noah Petronic, organic farm manager and greenhouse grower at Soergel's in Wexford, stands in his field of hops on Tuesday, July 9, 2013.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Noah Petronic, organic farm manager and greenhouse grower at Soergel's in Wexford, looks over his crop of hops on Tuesday, July 9, 2013.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Some of the hops being grown by Noah Petronic, organic farm manager and greenhouse grower at Soergel's in Wexford, on Tuesday, July 9, 2013.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Noah Petronic, organic farm manager and greenhouse grower at Soergel's in Wexford, looks over his crop of hops on Tuesday, July 9, 2013.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
A sign for one of the varieties of Noah Petronic, organic farm manager and greenhouse grower at Soergel's in Wexford, hops on Tuesday, July 9, 2013.

Jake Kristophel's dream is to one day be able to produce a completely locally sourced beer.

The co-owner and head brewer of Full Pint Brewing, North Versailles, is hopeful that Soergel Orchards is taking a hop in the right direction toward achieving that goal.

The longtime Wexford-based business is believed to be the first orchard in the Pittsburgh area to begin growing hops to supply to local craft breweries.

The increase of craft brewing in the greater Pittsburgh area, combined with the fact “there are not a lot of growers around,” makes Soergel's experiment “a natural fit” for this niche market, says Ralph Johns, chief operating officer.

As Soergel's first customer, Kristophel couldn't be happier.

“I think it's awesome! I always would rather rely on a local source of ingredients, not just in brewing, but everything I buy when possible,” he says. “Relying on local is way better than getting your ingredients from halfway across the world.”

Full Pint, a production brewery with a brewpub attached, has experienced “100 percent growth” every year since opening in 2009, says Kristophel.

“More and more restaurants, bars and local distributors are starting to realize what people want: 1. Good beer and 2. Local beer,” he says.

“Knowing where the products come from that are being used in a beer that you are drinking adds a story to the beer itself,” says Noah Petronic, organic-farm manager and greenhouse grower for Soergel's, who, after researching the agriculture behind brewing, proposed that the company install a hops yard on its organic farm.

“The fact that you can have a beer in the city and then drive 15 minutes north to ask the farmer who grew the hops that went into it how they grew it brings back a whole new sense to the local movement, which hasn't had a chance to prosper since before Prohibition,” he says. “The beer not only brings a lovely pallet of local flavors to the consumer, but it brings a story for the brewery to tell to their customers.”

While there are many home brewers growing hops, Petronic says, Soergel's is now part of a “very, very short list” of hops growers in Western and Central Pennsylvania.

“It brings another element of farm to table — or farm to keg — bringing local agriculture to the local craft-brewing industry, and also helps give our farm a little more biodiversity,” he says.

There are more craft breweries in the area than Soergel's can accommodate at this time, Petronic says.

“With this want from the breweries for fresh hops and other ingredients, I'm hoping that other farmers will see that the brewing industry is agriculture and we can grow and be part of this industry,” he says.

He wants to spread the word among farmers that it can provide another outlet for their crop production.

There is a lot of room for the industry to expand, he assures. “Plus, having other farmers involved would open up more access to information and possible equipment-sharing,” he says. Harvesting hops is time-consuming by hand.

“We like the farm-to-table idea, taking that product and making something fresh and new to get to people. Locally sourced is better for the environment and community and business,” Ralph Johns says. “It also gives us the opportunity to partner locally. It's another way of small business supporting small business. I like that aspect.”

Rex Rutkoski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at rrutkoski@tribweb.com.

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