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Just in case Florida isn’t the next hop powerhouse

Conveniently enough yesterday @BeerAdvocate tweeted to a link to a story I wrote for the magazine not quite two years ago. It began, “The American hop market seldom finds a comfortable equilibrium for very long, simply because as essential as hops are in brewing beer, they serve almost no other commercial purpose.”

Business was booming then and it is booming now. Last week I revisited one of the reasons why, and Bryan Roth is posting about hops every day this week. In addition, last week Good Beer Hunting took notice of how acreage outside the Northwest is growing and All About Beer had a story about an attempt to grow hops in Florida.

I’m as guilty as anyone about writing about hop farming beyond the American Northwest (for New Brewer, for Brauwelt, and for Beer Advocate in the past and in the current issue), but those stories have listed the challenges farmers everywhere else face. Those include the cost of infrastructure (figure it runs $40,000 to $60,000 to put one acre into operation, and generally you aren’t going to do it one at a time) and geography (more on that in a moment).

HoptopiaA new book, Hoptopia, about the rich history of hop growing and research in Oregon nicely illustrates how difficult hop farming can be even in regions well suited for them. After all, New York once called itself the hop capital of the world, Wisconsin surpassed it briefly, and Oregon took over for much of the first half of the twentieth century. Oregon, specifically the Willamette Valley, is still a major producer. Given current demand its farmers might be growing even more hops were other agriculture products not more lucrative.

Peter Kopp’s book also reminds us how often history repeats itself. Hop growing thrived in Oregon during Prohibition because of the export market. When Prohibition ended domestic demand drew many new farmers into the industry. “In a familiar refrain from the late nineteenth century, industry experts of the 1930s feared the the rapid expansion of hop raising, particularly by inexperienced farmers, would glut the market and depress prices,” Kopp writes. More established hop growers also worried that low-quality hops entering the marketplace from novice farmers would undermine the reputation of quality of Pacific Northwest hops.

Hops coming from outside the Northwest aren’t likely to lower prices anywhere, — they are more expensive to produce — but I’ve recently talked with several brewers concerned about quality. The Hop Quality Group, established in 2010, has not always endeared itself to Northwest farmers because its members made a list of best practices and set about making sure they were met. For instance, sanitation becomes more of an issue for brewers who dry hop extensively, because they are using hops closer to a “raw” form, without the benefits that result from boiling. They don’t want birds nesting in hop kilns, because they know what will end up in their hops and potentially their beer.

Monitoring 60 or so farms in the Northwest is enough of a task. Hundreds of new farms across the country change the math. It’s not clear who will be responsible for guaranteeing quality, but it is a food safety issue. There was a time when governments were involved. A law passed in Massachusetts in 1806 required that all hops packaged for export be inspected and graded, using strict standards. The Massachusetts “first sort” brand became known as the best hops in the United States, European brewers insisted on hops that had passed inspection, and they commanded a premium price. In 1819, the state of New York instituted a similar law. Brewers wanted assurances the bales they bought contained high quality cones, rather than ones that were damaged or old, and weren’t stuffed with various plant parts that had no brewing value.

But first there is a matter of growing enough hops that brewers want to buy and at a competitive price. And geography matters. Hop plants are photoperiodic, and day length is a critical factor for both vegetative growth and flowering. While they grow between latitudes 30º and 52º, they thrive between 45º and 50º. The plants are annual above ground and perennial below, and they need six to eight weeks of dormant time with the temperature below 40º F.

That is why I have a problem wrapping my ahead around this: “The future is brilliant for Florida hops. [Brian] Pearson says that if he can ‘go into breeding and selection, then we can start working with all varieties of hops.'” Tampa is at 28º. I recently talked with Jeanine Davis, said Jeanine Davis, Associate Professor and Extension Specialist in the Department of Horticultural Science at N.C. State University, about the status of hop research in North Carolina. Farmers are struggling to get acceptable yields at 34º, not even harvesting what Virginia farmers are just a bit to the north. “Those few degrees seem to make a real difference,” she said.

In fact, in the Florida story Pearson acknowledges, “In Yakima, they traditionally harvest about eight pounds of hops per plant. In North Carolina, they get two to three. In Florida, we have been getting one pound per plant.” That’s going to be a problem.

I could ramble on in a curmudgeonly way, because even though I’m an advocate for local ingredients in local beers I’m also a fan of reality based agricultural research. Instead I’ll go back to reading Hoptopia.

14 Responses to Just in case Florida isn’t the next hop powerhouse

  1. Brewer a September 21, 2016 at 7:35 am #

    ugh, Florida? I like the calls we get from growers in Southern Indiana that start, “Hey I’m going to grow hops in xyz, what do you want to buy?”

  2. Gail Williams September 21, 2016 at 11:33 am #

    Hey, Stan, I had an interesting conversation with a Davis grad student who said the recent research into hop compounds with medicinal properties could create a huge additional market for hop crops. No idea about varietals desired by pharma, if this pans out. Another interesting trend to watch.
    cheers!

    • Stan Hieronymus September 21, 2016 at 11:37 am #

      This could lead to more interest in creating fractions – so parts of interest for non-brewing purposes are separated from those used for brewing purposes. The implications of that? Hard to say.

  3. Todd September 21, 2016 at 1:32 pm #

    Thanks Stan! Great story. Reality bites,,, but sometimes people actually gets to chew and swallow it, even if it’s just a bitter reality,, eventually they’ll know,,, after many years of their life. Maybe some win and some lose,, but they tried to do something. Trying,, a most beautiful thing,,, but paying for one’s own learning curve with hops can be costly. Dreams,, that chance to try,,,, that chance it might work out drives us all,,, and win or lose,, if folks learn and share what they learn,,, we should all hopefully end up at the end of the day with,,, good beer. 😉

  4. Lars Marius Garshol September 22, 2016 at 3:29 am #

    Hops will grow a great deal further north than 52 degrees. I picked hops this weekend at 59 degrees, and hops seem to have grown as far north as 67 degrees.

    • Stan Hieronymus September 22, 2016 at 3:48 am #

      The issue (as it is closer to the equator) becomes yield, making them commercially viable.

  5. Lars Marius Garshol September 22, 2016 at 6:26 am #

    Maybe I misunderstood you, because I thought you said they wouldn’t grow at all. As far as commercial growing today goes you’re probably right. Funen in Denmark (55 north) had a big hop growing industry until the Germans outcompeted it in the 1920s.

    • Stan Hieronymus September 22, 2016 at 6:32 am #

      In 1491, hops accounted for 14% of the value of Swedish exports. But they didn’t have to compete with the Yakima Valley ;>)

  6. Lars Marius Garshol September 22, 2016 at 8:56 am #

    I actually didn’t know that. 🙂

    Anyway, yes, competition has definitely hardened.

  7. Jeff Alworth September 22, 2016 at 12:26 pm #

    I’m in South Dakota and have heard from two people about hops fields going in here. Last night I had a double IPA made with locally-grown Nugget and Centennial. Seems like SD is the sweet spot for production, so I’ll be interested to see if they can add to the growing list of growers outside the NW.

    On Nordic hops, when we were in Copenhagen, Carlsberg mentioned the times they’ve tried to grow Danish hops–but abandoned the project. Copenhagen is at 55 degrees (and is south of most of the country), so that would seem to bolster the *commercial* unviability of Danish hops.

    • Stan Hieronymus September 22, 2016 at 1:46 pm #

      Hundreds of years ago growing hops was as big a deal in Denmark as it was in Sweden, but obviously different times. Nugget is a much under-loved hop and seems to grow well a lot of places. Centennial, on the other hand, is challenging almost everywhere. It is a hop breeders would like to come up with a replacement for that is easier to grow.

  8. Thomas Vincent September 22, 2016 at 1:48 pm #

    Any updates on the Neo-mexicanus varieties? Granted cross breeding takes time but they seem to be the best potential genetic base for Southern US state hop hopes.

    • Stan Hieronymus September 22, 2016 at 1:52 pm #

      North Carolina now has some Neo (one of the varieties that Todd Bates bred) in its test field. Also, Santa Fe Brewing harvested its first full crop of Neo this year. So the process has begun.

      That doesn’t make it a solution for Florida. North Carolina still has proper a amount of dormancy period, for instance. And is not nearly as close to the equator.

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