Something’s brewing in the research plots outside Jeanine Davis’ office near Asheville that could help farmers who are trying to hitch their fortunes to N.C.’s burgeoning craft beer movement.
Davis is studying ways to grow North Carolina’s early-stage hops industry into a serious agriculture effort.
It would seem a heady time for growing hops in North Carolina: The artisan beer industry is taking off and interest in locally made foods has never been higher. But hops production here faces challenges that will take considerable science to overcome.
That’s where Davis and others from N.C. State’s hops team come in. Since 2010, Davis, associate professor and extension specialist with the university’s horticultural science department, has been trying to come up with ways Southern hops growers can beat diseases and climate restrictions that don’t plague the hops-growing giants in the Pacific Northwest. The hops yards she oversees at the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research & Extension Center in Mills River, outside Asheville, are a scientific laboratory that growers throughout the state hope will solve many of their problems.
It all started about six years ago, during a serious hops shortage, a problem for smaller breweries and home beer-making hobbyists. The part of hops used in beer are the female flowers, which look like green cones; when they are ripe, they are filled with resins containing the acids that give beer its bitter notes and distinctive aromas. “They are so fragrant, and very sticky,” Davis said. “It smells marvelous – if you like beer.”
With prices surging, growing hops for market seemed like a good idea. But Davis began fielding phone calls from new growers when they ran into trouble. She and other N.C. State researchers – funded initially with a Golden LEAF Foundation tobacco-region grant – planted study plots of hops to try to figure out what the crop needed. First, though, they needed to figure out which varieties work best in the South.
Role of climate
Types of hops vary greatly and all were bred for the cooler, less humid Northwest.
And a hops yard requires a steep investment just to get started. Hops grow on long bines – that’s bines, not vines, because the plants have twining stems – and need a trellis 12 to 20 feet tall, plus strings tied down to the base of each plant every year. And for small growers, it’s all hand picking, up and down ladders, as harvesting machinery generally is made for mass production.
Given that hops cones are picked over a period of time, as each ripens, it all adds up to a hefty labor cost. Davis knew that farmers who went to all this trouble did not want to be tearing out all their plants when varieties they chose proved poor.
“We found that the variety ‘Cascade’ does well for almost everybody that puts it in the Southeast,” she said.
Other findings: Downy mildew is a huge problem for hops, and taking off low foliage helps promote air circulation to control it, as does regular spraying. Davis also has found that pruning plants aggressively through the spring – more hand labor – boosts yields.
But where science can make perhaps the biggest difference in the hops industry is in plant breeding: creating varieties that thrive despite fewer hours of daylight.
In Washington state, the hops-growing giant in the U.S., summer days with up to 16 hours of daylight are ideal for the photo-sensitive plant. North Carolina, closer to the equator, doesn’t get that many daylight hours.
Davis is hoping to partner with other Southeastern states on grants – the USDA specialty crops grant that is now funding her runs out next year – to get a plant breeder developing new hops that thrive in the South.
The research is eagerly awaited by growers such as Ben Sunderman, owner of Cedar Ridge Hops Farm in Yadkin County. Sunderman was deep in harvest time around Labor Day, and had already tallied 250 pounds of hops, with 190 pounds left to pick.
Research into better ways to grow the crop, he said, “is the most important thing right now.
“I’ve got so much time and effort into this, and 20-foot-long telephone poles in the ground,” Sunderman said. The poles form hops trellises. “We’ve got such infrastructure and … of course all the family’s involved and it’s something I want to make work. Every year we get better and every year we find more things out.”
Still, he said, hops production “is not ‘put something in the ground and a dollar bill pops out.’ ”
Added to growing data supplied by research, Sunderman said he and other growers need to get equipment to turn whole hops into pellets that brewers typically prefer if they want to find more buyers.
The N.C. industry will always be something of a niche effort, some say. Washington state devotes tens of thousands of acres to hops production. Currently, North Carolina probably has about 80 growers working possibly 50 acres, Davis said. Still, that’s up from maybe 2 acres when she first began her research.
“Certainly early on, it’s going to be in the niche stage for the craft brewer and the craft beer drinker who are willing to spend a little more to promote what I call the Southern beer economy,” said Sean Lilly Wilson, head of Durham’s Fullsteam Brewery, which advertises “plow to pint” beer and uses a limited amount of locally grown hops. “It remains to be seen if we’re going to have the agricultural technology and wherewithal to get beyond that niche stage.”
Davis thinks hops growing could reach several hundred acres, with growers focused on highly aromatic hops for artisanal brews.
“The way I look at it is it’s very similar to what our wine grape industry was 15 years ago, when so many people said, ‘This will never amount to anything,’ ” Davis said. “I think the demand is there and the kind of people I see trying it – we’ve got some really tenacious people. ... We’re still right in the very beginning.”
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