|NC Hops Workshop in Mills River|
On Saturday, March 16th, the NC State Mountain Horticultural Crops Research & Extension Center in Mills River held a workshop entitled “Growing Hops in Western NC.” This was a session to discuss the commercial viability of a local hops economy in our region. With 90+ people in attendance, some coming from as far as Virginia, South Carolina, and Tennessee, I’d say interest in the crop is pretty high.
Jeanine Davis of NC State opened the event by talking about the state of the hops industry. There are many reasons why hops are in high demand:
- Increasing numbers of craft breweries
- Increasing interest in homebrewing
- Increasing demand for organic hops
- Increasing demand for fresh (a.k.a. “wet”) hops
- Increasing demand for locally-sourced products
But here’s the big question: Is a hops industry commercially viable in Western North Carolina?
This is where the hops project at the North Carolina research center comes in. Jeanine and her team coordinate with local growers to share resources and information about growing hops. As we’ll soon find out, growing hops, especially in North Carolina, is no easy task.
In 2010, Jeanine and her team, led by research assistant Kelly Gaskill, built a small hop yard at the Mills River research center (just down the road from the new Sierra Nevada brewery). They began testing different varieties of hops to see which would perform best in Western North Carolina. It’s a work in progress, but they’ve learned a few things about the plant:
- Hops must have healthy soil with lots of Nitrogen, Phosphorous, and Potassium. This means most farmers will have to use a significant amount of fertilizer.
- Hops need good air-circulation to help avoid infections from downy mildew and powdery mildew.
- Hops like to grow towards the sky -- and fast. Hops growers must build a 12-20-foot tall trellis for the hops grow on, a task which presents its own challenges.
- In North Carolina, certain hops varieties grow better than others.
- Pests like spider mites, Japanese beetles, and viruses can cause serious damage to your hops plants.
All these challenges aside, we haven’t even talked about the money yet. The bottom line is that growers are competing with industrial scale operations in the Pacific Northwest and Europe. The hours it takes to pick hops by hand compared to what a commercial harvester can do is staggering. But in the case of the research center, they’re not trying to grow for sale. They’re figuring out the best practices and learning which varieties grow best in North Carolina.
Some results have been promising. For example, they’ve found that most varieties of hops seem to grow better in Mills River than in Raleigh, possibly because of Western North Carolina's higher elevation and lower over-winter temperatures. Cascade seems to be the best-performing hops variety, with Columbus, Galena, Chinook, and Nugget also doing reasonably well. Still, yields in North Carolina are a fraction of what farms in other parts of the country are getting, so there’s plenty of work to do to figure out how to compete with the larger hops market.
An Expert Weighs In
The next speaker at the hops workshop was a verifiable hops expert, Greg Lewis. Early in his career, Lewis worked under preeminent hops researcher Dr. Ray Neve at the Wye College hops farm in the UK, where he focused on hops disease resistance. He then worked in the hops industry in Australia, followed by a period with the Yakima-based hops supplier Hop Union, where he was one of the researchers who developed the Columbus hop. At the workshop, Lewis addressed a few of the many challenges facing hops growers in North Carolina.
First of all, hops are a “short-day” crop. They grow best at certain latitudes where the longer days of the summer start to get shorter, triggering the female hop plant to start producing flowers (these flowers are the hops that brewers ultimately use to make beer.) Hops grow best between the latitudes of 35 and 55 degrees, which puts the major hops growing regions, such as Germany and Washington state, right in the middle of that range. And where’s North Carolina? Right on the 35th parallel. Because we’re closer to the equator, the days don't change as much as they do further north, so some varieties just don’t perform very well. Further, fitting the growing season between the frosts restricts growers to just a few hops varieties. As a result, breeding new, North Carolina-specific varieties could play an important role in making a local hops industry feasible.
To get over some of the hurdles in launching an industry, Lewis emphasized the importance of a growers’ organization or co-op so growers can pool resources such as lab testing and equipment. Between the environmental, geographic, and logistic challenges, growing hops in North Carolina is possible, but it won’t be easy. As Lewis said, “They’re a tough plant.”
The Local Growers
There are a few growers in Western North Carolina that have been growing hops successfully. It’s yet to be determined whether it makes much financial sense, but it’s clear that economies of scale will play a huge role in any North Carolina hops industry that develops.
- Blue Ridge Hops - Blue Ridge Hops is a certified organic hops farm in Madison County. As an organic farm, they’re limited to using organic fertilizers and pesticides. At this stage, they’re still picking by hand. It takes one person about an hour to pick a pound of fresh hops. Blue Ridge sells the bulk of their hops “wet” to local brewers for seasonal harvest beers, with the remaining crop going to area homebrewers. The appeal of a beer made with “locally-grown” ingredients is a strong marketing tool.
- Echoview Farm - Echoview Farm, based in Weaverville, NC, is one of the largest hops growers in Western North Carolina. They’ve invested in a commercial harvester, which will harvest some 300-400 lbs. of hops an hour, and a pelletizer, which processes hops into compact, brewery-friendly pellets. They also plan to hire a certified lab technician to assist with testing their hops for appropriate levels of alpha- and beta-acids, which indicate a hop’s bittering and flavoring potential. Other hops growers who want to borrow their equipment or lab technician should reach out to Stacy Wilson at Echoview Farm. Keep an eye out for their Echoview Hops Festival this summer.
- Holmes Brothers Hops - Though not yet certified organic, the Holmes brothers use organic practices for their Chinook, Cascade, and Nugget hop plants. Cascade seems to be their most successful type of hop. Their Cascade has sometimes exceeded the alpha-acid range considered typical for the variety. A couple tips for growers: 1) Let the hop bine (vine) climb up and over the hop trellis, ideally around the longest day of the year. As it comes back down, this helps trigger the plant to flower. 2) At the end of your growing season, you’ll end up with a lot of hop bines and vegetative material. Let these decompose or compost over your hop plants to give them nutrients for the next season.
It All Comes Back to the Beer
At the end of the day, it’s the commercial brewer who will decide whether or not to use a batch of hops. If the hops don’t meet certain guidelines of quality, it doesn’t matter whether or not they’re locally-grown. John Stuart, head brewer at Green Man Brewery, explained what breweries want from hops suppliers:
- Quality - Hops should be fresh, disease-free, and processed in a way that preserves the valuable hop oils.
- Quantity - Producers should be able to supply enough hops for the product. One-off, seasonal brews are great, but even smaller breweries use hundreds or thousands of pounds of hops each year to create their year-round beers.
- Consistency - From season to season, a given hop variety should be relatively consistent in both quantity and quality.
- Fair and competitive pricing - Many brewers will buy local if the product is good, but they still have to watch the bottom line. If this means buying from out of state, so be it.
- Proper packaging - Hops should be stored air tight and cold to preserve the hops.
- Analysis - At the least, a hops supplier must be able to tell the brewer the percentage of alpha-acids in the hops they provide. This allows the brewer to formulate their recipe for appropriate levels of bitterness.
John’s advice to growers: do your best to sell local, but the quality has to be there. Resources such at the Natural Products Lab at the AB-Tech BioNetwork Center can help with product testing.
Where there’s a will...
The hops workshop has shown that growing hops in this part of the world is a definite challenge. But with the level of enthusiasm behind craft beer, sustainable agriculture, and buying local, there’s no reason North Carolina can’t have it’s own successful, sustainable hops industry.
Do you grow hops? Where are you located and what challenges or successes have you experienced? Do you want to grow hops? Share in the comments below!
|A tour of the 1/4 acre hops yard. (Photos courtesy of Bob Smith)|
|Each post is 20 feet high with a top wire. Polypropylene fabric helps control weeds.|
|Rigging will help hold up all those hops.|
|A winch lowers the top wire, making for easy harvesting.|