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Roll Out the Research

Curiosity is brewing about whether hops, a key ingredient in beer, could be a viable crop in North Carolina. Working together, growers and scientists with NC State intend to satisfy the thirst for information.

Van Burnette chose hops as a drought-resistant crop for his 6-acre farm near Black Mountain, east of Asheville. Interest in growing hops has been highest in the mountains, perhaps because Asheville has a reputation as a microbrewery hotspot. It’s been called “Brewtopia” and named the East Coast’s “Beer City, USA.”

The problem is, no one really knows much about how hops grow here, much less whether burgeoning interest in local beers and home brewing will translate into a sustainable market. To find out, Burnette and a few other pioneering North Carolina hops growers will tap into information from experimental plots across the state.

Last week, Rob Austin and Dr. Deanna Osmond with the soil science department planted a quarter-acre of hops at the university’s field laboratory off Lake Wheeler Road in Raleigh. 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 with hops.

A key question is whether new varieties and better production practices can overcome disease problems that shifted the East Coast hops industry to Oregon and Washington decades ago. Scientists need to understand the types of nutrients and soils the fast-growing plants need, as well as whether local conditions impart flavors and aromas that would appeal to beer producers.

Homegrown Hops

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 commercially.

Hops are climbing perennials typically grown on expensive 20-foot trellis systems. The up-front costs aren’t immediately recouped because hops take about three years to become fully established.

Cost-effective production also requires large acreage and specialized machinery for harvesting the flowers or cones, drying them and turning them into pellets. Such machinery is used in Oregon and Washington, which dominate the national hops market.

A national shortage a few years ago 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 so 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. 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 because it’s not as dry as the Pacific Northwest, increasing the likelihood of  damage from diseases such as downy mildew and powdery mildew. But they are hopeful that improved hops varieties and advances in disease control might make it easier to avoid devastating losses.

Burnette’s farm has been in his family for 150 years, and he’s pursuing niche markets for crops like hops and blueberries and the associated tourism.

He’s looking forward to being involved in the NC State hops research project, funded by a one-year grant from Golden LEAF, a foundation that supports research into economic alternatives for tobacco-dependent communities. 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 lead to reliable production recommendations.

Fermenting Interest

Burnette 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 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.

In Durham, Sean Wilson is weeks away from opening Fullsteam brewery. The company’s tagline – “plow-to-pint beer from the beautiful South” – emphasizes local connections.

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

When it comes to locally produced hops, Wilson is cautiously enthusiastic, pointing out that growers will have to meet exacting standards.

“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.”

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