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April 07, 2010

Hopping into a new crop

Rob Austin of NCSU and Chris Davis, head brewer at Fullsteam, plant hop rhizomes at the Lake Wheeler Road Field Laboratory in Raleigh.
Rob Austin (left) of NCSU and Chris Davis, head brewer at Fullsteam Brewery, plant hop rhizomes at the Lake Wheeler Road Field Laboratory in Raleigh. (Becky Kirkland photo)

When Van Burnette wanted a drought-resistant crop to try on his 6-acre farm near Black Mountain, he decided on hops. The problem is, no one really knows much about how the essential beer ingredient will grow in North Carolina, much less whether burgeoning interest in local beers and home brewing will translate into a sustainable market.

N.C. State University specialists are out to change that, cooperating with Burnette and a few other pioneering North Carolina hops growers to figure out viable production, post-harvest and marketing options.

At the university’s field laboratory off Lake Wheeler Road in Raleigh, Rob Austin and Dr. Deanna Osmond, of the Department of Soil Science, planted a quarter-acre experimental hop yard recently.

And from the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Center in Mills River, horticulture specialist Dr. Jeanine Davis is monitoring conditions at four mountain farms where hops are being grown.

Some of the key questions the scientists will be asking: Can new varieties and better production practices ease the disease pressures that pushed the East Coast hops industry to Oregon and Washington decades ago? What types of nutrients and soils do the fast-growing plants need? And do local conditions impart flavors and aromas that beer producers will be interested in buying?

Austin, a geographic information specialist, has some experience with hops: He’s a home brewer, and for eight years he’s been growing a few plants along a fence in his backyard in Apex.

But, he points out, there’s a big difference between growing something in your backyard and growing it on a scale that makes it a worthwhile commercial endeavor.

Hops are climbing perennials that on most farms are grown on expensive 20-foot trellis systems, he explains. The up-front costs that such systems require aren’t immediately recouped because, as with winegrapes, hops take about three years to be fully established.

Also, cost-effective mass production requires large acreage and specialized machinery for harvesting the flowers (or cones, as they are called), drying them and turning them into pellets. Such machinery is used in Oregon and Washington, which currently have the national hops market sown up.

But a few years ago there was a national hops shortage, which raised the price of hops -– and the hopes of growers looking for alternative crops. Austin says the Raleigh home brew store he bought hops from even went as far as to limit the amount of hops a customer could buy. That led him to wonder if North Carolina farmers might be able to help fill the gap.

Davis says scores of growers had similar ideas.

“When it comes to interest in growing hops, people are coming out of the woodwork. We had 100 people on a hops tour we had last year,” Davis says. “But we need to stress this is very risky. We know very little about it. And we have real concerns.”

She, Austin and Burnette think that North Carolina is unlikely to become a major hops producer. The major hops-growing region is drier than North Carolina, and this makes them concerned about the damage that diseases such as downy mildew and powdery mildew could cause. But they are hopeful that new, more resilient hops varieties and advances in disease control might make it easier to avoid devastating losses.

vanburnette.jpg
Van Burnette started growing hops in 2009. (Photo courtesy of Van Burnette)

Burnette is looking forward to being involved in the N.C. State hops research project, which is funded by a one-year grant from Golden LEAF, a foundation that supports research into economic alternatives for tobacco-dependent communities.

Burnette’s farm has been in his family for 150 years, and he’s hopeful that niche markets for crops like hops and blueberries and associated tourism will prove economically sustainable.

A Western North Carolina AgOptions grant from North Carolina Cooperative Extension enabled him to set up his hop yard, and he’s hopeful that the grant-funded research project will led to reliable production recommendations.

“The hops project can’t do anything but benefit me and the rest of us growers,” he says. “I know that I found it frustrating -– and so did the other growers -– that there’s not enough known about hops. … I mean, how do you know what hops need as far as the soil? And how are we going to take care of these pests and diseases? And how are we going to know for sure what kind of pests and diseases we have?”

In spite of so many production challenges and questions, he and others think the growing local food movement and the interest in specialty and regional beers could mean that buyers are willing to pay a premium for locally produced hops with special qualities.

In Burnette’s case, a small brewery that’s less than 5 miles from his farm bought all the hops he was able to produce last year. This year, he plans to sell most of what he produces to that brewery, but he’s also planning a second “you-pick” harvest for home brewers.

Interest in North Carolina hops production has been highest in the mountains, perhaps because Asheville has a growing reputation as a center for microbrewery. It’s been called “Brewtopia” and named the East Coast’s “Beer City, USA.”

In the Piedmont, interest is gaining momentum. For example, Sean Wilson is weeks away from opening Fullsteam, a Durham brewery. The company’s tagline -- “plow-to-pint beer from the beautiful South” -- emphasizes local connections.

“Our goal is to try to … be the bridge that connects consumers who want local with farmers,” he says.

Already, the beer maker is buying all the rhubarb it can find locally, and the company is looking into purchasing locally processed sweet potato puree.

When it comes to locally produced hops, Wilson is cautiously enthusiastic.

“We would like nothing more than for our flagship beer, which we call Carolina Common, to use North Carolina-grown hops, at least in part of the process if not for the entire thing,” he says. But, he adds, “beer is an art and a science, and for us to rely on a hop provider, there has to be a fair amount of science involved. … They have to meet exacting standards to make quality, consistent beer.

“And we have to be practical when we look at our flagship beer,” he says. “Like any business, we have to be attuned to our raw ingredient costs, and that’s where the challenge is: There’s an opportunity, but it’s a challenge.”

-D. Shore

Posted by deeshore at April 7, 2010 02:29 PM