The secretary of the Maryland Department of Agriculture, an 87-year-old retired veterinarian and a master craft brewer walk into a taproom.
No, it’s not the beginning of a lame joke: It was part of the guest list at Heavy Seas Beer in Baltimore County at a recent celebration for the release of a beer brewed with the Monocacy hop, a genetically unique plant that’s believed to be the only hop native to Maryland.
Heavy Seas, Maryland’s largest remaining craft brewer, is the first big name to use the hop, which was discovered on the veterinarian’s Frederick County farm and cultivated in a partnership with the University of Maryland Extension.
We’ll save you the suspense: Yes, the Monocacy hop has led to a tasty brew.
“It’s a serious beer,” said Kevin Atticks, Maryland’s agriculture secretary. “It is going to be commercially viable.”
Shortly after he moved to a farm near Thurmont in 1968, Ray Ediger noticed hops growing around the edges of a garden.
The retired veterinarian, who grew up in the Pacific Northwest, said he recognized the plant because he was paid to pick hops as a child. Used in every style of beer, hops, which serve multiple functions — including cutting down on sweetness and adding flavor — are hardy plants and “really quite pretty,” Ediger said.
A hardy hop in Maryland is unusual, said Bryan Butler, a principal agent in agriculture and natural resources with the University of Maryland Extension whose work there includes running a hop yard in Western Maryland. He had found that the Pacific Northwest version of the plants, which are bred and grown in a high latitude and arid climate, were not doing well in the mid-Atlantic.
So when Butler heard about the hops growing — thriving, even — on Ediger’s farm, he pulled some strings to have them genetically sequenced. In October 2020, Butler learned the Thurmont farm discovery was a genetically unique variety of North American wild hop.
Then began the work of propagating and growing the Monocacy hop, which was named not for the folks who found it, but for the area where it was grown.
The university worked with the Brewers Association of Maryland to host a giveaway with about 30 brewers and breweries at the yard over the summer who could leave with the plant to experiment with, Butler said. They’ll be able to distribute more of it as the hop yard expands and Butler continues to test the plant, he said.
Butler and Ediger did not patent the hops because it was important to them that the discovery was used for the benefit of Maryland, not for personal financial gain, Butler said.
”We’re doing this for Maryland. We’re doing this so Maryland can have something,” he said. “Let’s just get this out there for the greater good.”
Released in mid-October exclusively at the Heavy Seas Beer taproom, the beer is an amber-colored, German-style altbier named “Altimore.” It’s easy to drink and has an ABV of 5.4%. It’s relatively sweet — almost like a really good caramel, but not cloyingly so.
It’s also limited in supply. Brewers at Heavy Seas made about 20 kegs, which translates to fewer than 3,000 pint glasses.
“It came out how I expected it to come out,” said Chris Leonard, brewmaster and director of operations at Heavy Seas. “All I want to do is make the best beer I could possibly make.”
At the launch, Butler said he was happy but “not surprised” that the finished product, which should be available in the taproom for another month or so, tasted good.
“The horticulture is going well, but it doesn’t mean much if this doesn’t go well,” he said while gesturing to the glass in his hand.
The brewery — and craft brewing in general — has always taken technology and ingredients from around the world, Leonard said, so using the Monocacy hop could make this “truly a Maryland beer.”
“I’m tickled, I really am,” Ediger said. “I love Maryland. So if this can be merchandised as one of Maryland’s own, I think it’s special.”
Heavy Seas Beer will likely use the Monocacy hop again, Leonard said. Atticks noted he’s hopeful that means there’s a future where there is an industry based on it.
The Baltimore County brewery is already experimenting with the hop in different stages of production and beer styles, Leonard said. Butler thinks it could be used for more than flavoring, too.
“It may turn out that this [Monocacy hop] is primarily used for breeding purposes, to increase disease resistance,” Butler said. “And to make it so other, more popular hops are more resilient.”
Janna Howley, who represents the Brewers Association of Maryland as the chief operating officer of Grow & Fortify, said she’d love to see more breweries in the state use it.
The hop could be a way to attract more customers to local taprooms, she said, which is important because craft beer distribution can be difficult for some manufacturers.
She said she hoped the association with the state could be a boon for the industry: “Maryland brewers love Maryland, right?”