Three large beer brewers are building their east coast breweries in North Carolina, combined with 60 or so craft beer brewers and a thriving number of amateur brewers and there has grown a significant demand for one of beer’s primary ingredients — hops.

The crop is not native to the Tar Heel state, but has been grown in the past and can be grown now, but just how to do that has proven to be a perplexing challenge for North Carolina State University Horticulturist Jeanine Davis.

Davis and her research team at North Carolina State’s Mountain Horticultural Research Station in Mills River, N.C., and on the main campus in Raleigh, have taken up the challenge and are making progress in getting hops planted in the western and piedmont sections of North Carolina.

With the financial help of the North Carolina Golden Leaf Foundation, North Carolina State University soil scientists Rob Austin and Scott King, established a short trellis hop yard, which is the terminology used for a planting of hops, at the Lake Wheeler Road Field Laboratory in Raleigh, N.C in 2010.                                                                                                                       

The experimental hop yard includes 200 total hops plants on one-quarter of an acre. The hop yard contains 10 different U.S. hops varieties replicated four times throughout the experimental site.

The varieties were selected based on their range of alpha acid content (bitterness), yield potential, disease and pest resistance, total U.S. production, and demand by local craft breweries.

In 2011, with financial help from a Specialty Crops Block Grant through the North Carolina Department of Agriculture, Davis established a quarter acre high trellis (20 feet tall) hop yard at the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research Station. It has 10 varieties, eight of them the same as in the Raleigh yard.

Austin, King, and Davis have worked the past three years with a small community of growers with established hop yards in western North Carolina.

Sierra Nevada, a nationally known brewery with some quirkily named, but highly popular beers, recently began construction of a brewery adjacent to the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research Station in Mills River. “We considered building a zip line across the river direct to the brewery,” Davis jokes.