Are Hops a Viable Crop in North Carolina?

small hops growingWe have another guest post today by a good friend of mine, Keil Janson, who is the organizer of the annual Brew Durham Festival, which we have attended each of the last two years.  Keil is an avid homebrewer, and he, along with about 100 other brewers and hop farmers, attended a presentation at NC State University last weekend to learn about the hop research they are doing to help determine if hops are an economically viable crop that can be grown in NC.

NC State University hosted a hops workshop and tour this past weekend. The presentation was given by Jeanine Davis from the Department of Horticultural Studies and Scott King from the Department of Soil Sciences at NC State. Attendees had the opportunity to listen to both of these experts speak about hops and to visit the Lake Wheeler hop yard where the study is currently under way. The information on the success of different varieties is based on the data collected from this yard and the second hop yard in Mills River (outside Asheville), NC, over the past two years.

Most of today’s interest in hop growing in NC traces back to the hop shortage of 2007 and the explosion of craft brewing in North Carolina. Hobbyists and farmers have been exploring hops as a crop for several years now, and NC State has been conducting its research and working with local Cooperative Extension offices to spread information and to determine the viability of hops as an economically viable crop.

You can view the PDF of the presentation, but the the research thus far has shown that growing hops in North Carolina is very difficult to do at a commercial and profitable level.  There are two main reasons for this: the presence of diseases and the amount of daylight at our latitude.

Diseases are a serious impediment to commercial hop farms anywhere, and are made worse by the humid conditions during the summer in NC. Powdery mildew and downy mildew are the worst of the bunch, and they are one of the main reasons most commercial production has moved to the Pacific Northwest, where hops are grown in much more arid conditions where mildew is less of a threat. These two fungi were responsible for the migration away from, and eventual demise of the historical hops industry that used to be present across the east coast.

hops growingSunlight is also a major concern, and one that is much less manageable than disease. Hop cones are flowers, and the production of said flowers is largely influenced by the amount of light the plant receives each day. The hop plant ties its biological clock to the sun and regulates its behavior by what it thinks the current season is; summer days in southern regions of the US are much shorter than in the northern regions, by over an hour in mid-June, and this confuses the plants. While some varieties can and do thrive in the hot climate of the Piedmont region, even the best producing plants at the NC State Raleigh hop yard only produced about 15% of what the same variety produces in Oregon or Washington. (Remember that these plants are only in their second year of production, however.)

Of the 10 varieties tested at the hop yard, only three produced a substantial amount of cones: Zeus, Cascade, and Chinook. Each of these plants produced close to one pound of hops in its second year. While that sounds like a lot, one pound of wet hops ends up being less than two ounces of dried hops, which is the format in which brewers usually purchase and measure their hops. In other words, one plant gives you approximately enough to dry hop one 5-gallon batch of pale ale or IPA.

hand full of hopsWhile there are exceptions, I believe the takeaway is that hop farming is an endeavor that requires a lot of inputs, such as fertilizer, pesticides and a lot of labor, and it doesn’t produce a large harvest in NC. This likely means that it will not be a very profitable crop for farmers, so the likelihood of seeing a growing or thriving hops industry in our state is relatively low. I would love to be proven wrong, and if that happens, I’m willing to bet that it will be the research of Jeanine and Scott that turned the corner.

Thank you so much to Jeanine, Scott, NC State, and the Golden Leaf Foundation, which provided the funding for much of the research.

Hops Presentation:

Jeanine Davis on Twitter: @JeanineNCSU

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How To Grow Your Own Hops In Your Own Backyard | NC Beer Magazine

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