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.

Charmed by people, environment

When asked why they chose to move to the mountains of western North Carolina, a Sierra Nevada spokesperson says, “We were charmed by the people and environment in Asheville. We love the sense of the outdoors and connection to the land, as well as the amazing beer culture and brewing scene that’s sprung up over the past decade.”

Currently, New Belgium and Oskar Blues breweries are in the process of establishing breweries in North Carolina.

New Belgium, which markets the highly successful Fat tire brand beer, plans to break ground for it $175 million facility in the first quarter of 2013 and plans to begin brewing beer there by early 2015.

Oskar Blues will actually be the first of three breweries to begin operation from their plant in Brevard, N.C.

In addition to national craft brewers, like Sierra Nevada and New Belgium, a number of local craft brewers, or micro brewers have been highly successful in western North Carolina, especially in and around Asheville.

“And, making home beer has become such a big hobby that there are now competitions, much like chili cook-offs”, Davis says.

Growing hops in the cool mountain air of western North Carolina may seem like a natural, because of the similarity with areas in southern Germany, in which hops production is done on a large scale. However, in reality, most of the old world hops varieties grown in Europe aren’t well suited at all for production in the Upper Southeast.

Though Germany, in particular Bavaria, is the largest hops producer in the world, with about 35 percent of worldwide hops production, the U.S. is rapidly gaining, producing about 24 percent of global output.

In the U.S., hops production is highly concentrated in Idaho, Washington and Oregon. Davis notes that hops grows best between the 35th and 55th latitude, considerably farther north than North Carolina.

Even the Pacific Northwest, at the bottom end of the ideal crops production area, growers can count on 16 or more hours of daylight during peak hops growing season. In western North Carolina, maximum daylight is about 14 hours.

This is critical because hops is a highly day-length sensitive crop. Davis points out there are now some hops varieties that are more daylight neutral and require less daylight than varieties grown in most areas of the world.

“These day-length neutral varieties, bred in South Africa, are the ones we need to use in North Carolina, she says.

“Brewers will likely ask for more commonly known aromatic hops, but any new grower should grow hops varieties suited for production in North Carolina, and then convince the brewer to use these varieties,” she adds.

“There are some indications that growing day-length sensitive varieties here in North Carolina is severely limiting our yields. In some cases, we may be losing up to 85 percent of potential yield, just because we are trying to grow the wrong varieties”.

Want locally grown hops

She points out the obvious — all these new craft brewers coming into North Carolina want locally grown hops. “We know there is demand for locally grown hops, but so far I don’t know of any local growers who have found a way to grow hops on a large scale and do so profitably,” she adds.

“We’re working on it, but so far the hops industry in North Carolina is definitely in its infancy”.

Labor is definitely a limiting factor in establishing commercial size hop yards. Right now all the hops grown in North Carolina are hand harvested. It takes about an hour to hand-harvest a pound of wet hops, which sells to local micro or craft brewers for $16-$20 per pound. Dried hops sells to home brewers for $3-&5 per ounce.

To be profitable, the research indicates that commercial growers need to harvest at least one pound of wet hops per plant and sell those for about $20 per pound.

To brew a small batch of a seasonal beer with wet hops, most breweries need 25 to 30 pounds of hops. This is an attainable goal, but so far, none of the growers are reporting making a profit.  

The cost of establishing a hop yard is high, somewhere between $12,000 and $16,000 per acre, perhaps somewhat less if a grower has free access to tall, sturdy locust poles needed in the construction process.

When selecting a hops site, growers should pay special attention to three things, Davis says:

• Select fertile, well drained soils;

• Select a site with good air circulation;

• Select a site with good overall drainage.

Hops is a perennial plant that is usually grown from spring transplanted rhizome pieces. It grows and fruits best when it grows vertically, hence the need for tall, sturdy poles as part of the hops yard. As the hops yard matures, production typically goes up and production costs come down.

The over-riding key to have any chance at making a hops yard profitable is to choose varieties that are best suited to your growing conditions, the North Carolina State specialist says.

“Hops are typically grown from rhizome pieces, and it is critical to get clean, healthy rhizomes for transplanting, she adds.

The North Carolina specialist says not keeping the sprouts pruned back long enough in the spring is probably limiting production. “Waiting until April to let these sprouts grow seemed to work best for growers this year,” she says. Research continues to uncover production tips and these are passed along via myriad conventional Extension channels and not-so-conventional social media outlets.

So far, so good with the few hops growers trying it on a small scale, Davis says. “Hops are doing surprisingly well here, considering how far south we are located! They seem to be doing particularly well in the mountain areas, she says.

“Our hops mature really early here; we start harvesting in July. We aren’t sure what that means for the plants in the long-term. We have more disease, insect, and weed pressure than in the Pacific Northwest, but we expected that and we are figuring out ways to cope.

“I think our success will rely on having markets that will pay a premium for high quality, locally grown, hand-harvested hops,” she adds.

rroberson@farmpress.com