Dave Prucha’s work day begins at the crack of dawn, when he heads out to tend his hop plants in rural Yamanashi Prefecture, on his farm, Obina Hops.
Prucha purchased land in Obina, just outside of the city of Kofu, 12 years ago after falling in love with the scenery and the warmhearted locals. He had already been taking groups of students out to the area to learn about rice cultivation as part of his course on sustainable business for Takushoku University in Tokyo, and the San Francisco native and lover of craft beer eventually saw a chance to immerse himself in a new venture — bringing back domestic hop production to the region and starting his own microbrewery in Kofu.
“About 50 years ago, hops were still grown here quite a bit, and many older people can remember working on a hop farm before they went out of business. But Japanese beer companies then switched to cheaper imported hops, and the local hop industry collapsed,” Prucha says.
Following the rise in popularity of craft beer in Japan in the 1990s, Prucha believes the time is right to re-introduce hop farming.
“The ideal latitude zone for producing hops is between 35 and 55 degrees, and Yamanashi is in this zone at 36,” he says. “Japan doesn’t have the land to scale up to compete with overseas hop farms, but at the micro level, small-scale hop farms like mine are ideal for getting more people interested in the production of grains and hops for craft beer.”
Prucha started his farm in 2019 and immersed himself in learning about growing hops. “Although I studied like crazy, there are many things to consider: Wildlife like deer, boar and insects can damage the hops, and unstable weather conditions — too much rain, typhoons, humidity — can have a severe effect,” Prucha, who is going into his third growing season, says. Currently he grows some 20 varieties; most are American hybrid hops, but two are domestic Japanese varieties, including one only found in Yamanashi, Kaikogane, that’s used for lager beer.
“Hops usually take three years to mature and use commercially, so I’m especially looking forward to this year’s harvest. Last year was terrible for the hops. A prolonged rainy season basically made any harvest minimal,” he says. With the added burden of COVID-19, Prucha admits it was a struggle to simultaneously cultivate the plants, build a brewery and pivot to online teaching for his current job at Yamanashi Prefectural University.
Despite the many challenges, Prucha is buoyed by the encouragement of the community. One of his biggest supporters is Miyagi Chino, a local resident in his 70s. “Both Dave and his wife are non-Japanese, and yet they love this area more than anyone and are trying to contribute, so I decided to help with the work as a volunteer,” Chino says.
“My goal for the farm is to get enough varieties of imported hops growing in Obina, so that my brewery can mix and blend different hops for a variety of aromas and tastes,” Prucha says. “One more benefit of growing hops locally rather than importing is that fresh hops used within 24 hours of harvesting can make special brews called ‘wet hop’ ale. Existing and future microbreweries can come to Yamanashi to pick hops and take them back to their breweries to make these particularly tasty wet hop ales. I’ve already had requests for this kind of harvest.”
Yuka Konno was inspired to make the move out to Kofu last year to help at Obina Hops, after meeting Prucha at the microbrewery where she was working in Tokyo. “As a brewer myself, I’ve always been interested in making craft beer with fresh hops that are picked within 24 hours. They have a unique fresh, green flavor that lingers in the nose,” Konno says. “Right now, most of those grown in Japan are American hops, but I think there will be an increase in demand for hops that are indigenous to Japan.”
Yamanashi Prefectural University students in Prucha’s Green Business Seminar will also be doing their fieldwork on his farm, learning about hop cultivation. With a passion for sustainable farming practices, Prucha hopes to promote agritourism in the area.
“Once tourism gets back on track, for example, I hope to have my students guide international and domestic tourists around the small hop fields, explaining the growing process, then taking them over to the brewery for the tasting room experience,” Prucha says. He is also in talks with some Yamanashi vineyards and wineries for further collaborative projects.
With his brewery equipment arriving soon, Prucha is gearing up to start producing craft beer with his own hops later this year and is, of course, looking forward to trying the results.
“The taste of fresh hops is complex, yet full of rich aroma and flavor — the hops really come alive when you drink this kind of beer,” he says.
For more information about Obina Hops, visit obinahops.com/en.
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