The very soul of beer, the ingredient responsible for its wonderful bitterness, is now being grown in North Carolina.
Hoping to build on the craft-brewing and local food movements, N.C. State University researchers in Raleigh and a handful of farmers in the mountains are growing experimental plots of hops, the cone-shaped flower clusters that brewers add to beer for bitterness and aroma and as a natural preservative.
Rob Austin, Deanna Osmond, and Jeanine Davis at NCSU got a $28,000, one-year grant this year from the Golden LEAF Foundation to investigate the commercial viability of growing hops here. In March, a couple of volunteers from a soon-to-open Durham brewery called Fullsteam came to help researchers plant a small plot of about 200 plants at a university field laboratory near Lake Wheeler south of Raleigh.
Davis, an extension agent specialist, had already been working with four farms in the mountains that are trying to grow hops. The goals, Austin said, are to test the plants' ability to grow in North Carolina and to monitor potential diseases, particularly mold, which drove hops production out of the eastern United States and Midwest in the 1920s. Now most hops grown in the U.S. come from arid parts of the Pacific Northwest.
A couple of years ago, though, farmers in the western part of the state decided to plant hops. They were spurred by a spike in hops prices and the rise of craft-brewing in North Carolina. This year, some hope to reap their first significant harvest.
Brewers are watching keenly, said Brooks Hamaker of Fullsteam. The brewery is expected to start selling beer around the Triangle in mid-June and to open an adjacent tavern later in the summer.
Fullsteam plans to emphasize locally grown ingredients such as sweet potatoes, scuppernong grapes and persimmons. The notion of North Carolina hops was so exciting that despite being in the middle of hectic opening preparations, Hamaker and the two other senior employees at Fullsteam stopped work and came to Raleigh to help Austin with planting.
"We'd be interested in about as much as we could get our hands on," he said.
Hops' almost mystical role in creating beer is drawing an outsized amount of attention for the farmers, given the modest size and early stage of their experiments.
"It's unbelievable how much interest this has generated," said Black Mountain farmer Van Burnette, who has planted a plot of about a fifth of an acre. "I've had more than 100 people here on one tour alone, and I get calls all the time from people who are thinking about growing it."
Hard work pays off
Hops are labor intensive to grow, particularly at small-scale farms that can't afford expensive equipment such as harvesting machines.
The bines, as the plants are called, must be encouraged to grow up strings or wires on elaborate trellis systems. They require careful pruning and the harvest is laborious, too, said Julie Jensen, who is growing the largest plot so far, a two-acre hop yard on her Weaverville farm.
She's even building a oast house, or drying shed, for the flowers.
Jensen, who is growing on land once used for tobacco, said it's a huge amount of work but one of the few crops that, on paper at least, could bring in decent income for farmers, which is what led her to try it. Hops can sell for more than $10 a pound in small quantities, and it's not unusual for an acre to yield more than 2,000 pounds.
Burnette was getting out of the cattle business and looking for a drought-resistant crop last year when he decided to plant a tiny plot of hops, about 35 plants each of four varieties.
If the farmers can figure out how to grow good hops in quantity, he said there is a ready market, given the dozens of brewing operations that have sprung up in recent years, including nearly 150 within 200 miles of his farm.
As part of their grant work, NCSU scientists plan to perform chemical analysis of the North Carolina-grown hops. Austin said he hopes they will show unique regional characteristics, something that could add distinction to beers made with them.
The farmers and scientists say there is still much to learn about even the most basic parts of growing hops here. Some hazards are already clear, though. Last year, Burnette sent some fresh hops to a skilled home brewer who crafted a beer to serve at a group harvest. On the appointed day, though, they made the mistake of letting everyone "sample" a brew or two before the picking.
"That didn't work out too well," he said. "Next time it will be pick first, drink second."
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