What are these hops that we’ve been hearing so much about? Hops are the spice of beer. These cones are the fruit of a bine (not a vine) that grows an average of 18 feet tall and produce lupulin, which gives beer its bitterness, flavor and aroma. In such a beer oriented region as Western North Carolina, it would only make sense to grow your own hops, right? This region prides itself on shopping locally and supporting local farmers, shops and breweries. However, most hops yards are located in Europe, Canada, and the Pacific Northwest. By planting bines closer to home, the hops are thousands of miles fresher and fewer fossil fuels were used to get them to their final destination, right? It turns out that the answer is a little more complicated than that. Here’s what we know: Yes, hops will grow here in the south. Yes, they will produce cones. That’s the good news. Look back, though, at the areas where hops are known to thrive. Are you noticing a trend? Hops flourish in a cooler climate with longer days. The higher the latitude, the longer the summer days get. So, it is possible to grow hops here, but it’s tricky. The Pacific Northwest gets about 15.5 hours of sun each day. Here in WNC, we get about 14.5. This is where science comes in. I am certainly not a scientist, but I do know where to find one!
Dr. Jeanine Davis is associate professor and extension specialist in the Department of Horticultural Science at North Carolina State University. I met her at her office at the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Center in Mills River, where she and her team have been conducting a variety trial with several different hops since 2011. What Dr. Davis’ work has shown is that there are some varieties that do better here than others, but, she warns, “What we don’t have are varieties that are bred for this area.” Having said that, there are a number of farmers that are growing hops and having some successes with Cascade, Nugget, Chinook, Galena, and the Zeus varieties. Other varieties will do okay, but haven’t yet produced the same yields that these have. The research also shows that the initial and ongoing costs of hop growing can be prohibitive for some. Hops grow on tall trellis systems that average 12’-18’ depending on the variety desired. They demand irrigation, and some pretty major equipment to harvest, dry, and pelletize the cones. The pelletizing process helps with shipping and storing over long periods of time. For the most part, hops are harvested only once a year, so they need to last potentially until the next harvest. To start a hops farm, Dr. Davis predicts costs of $12,000-$16,000 per acre! It demands a skilled farmer that knows how to make a return on their investment.
Enter Rita Pelczar. Rita and her husband, John Wright moved to WNC from Maryland when they retired. Rita was a horticulturist in her professional life, and she wanted something to grow on a commercial basis in her “retirement”. One night over pints at a local brewery, her sons suggested that they plant hops. It was 2007, and there was a hops shortage in the news. The next spring, John and Rita planted their first rhizomes. At the time, hardly anyone was growing hops in the south. They looked to the expertise of the growers in the Pacific Northwest for guidance, which isn’t necessarily applicable in this region. Some things are the same: the pruning, the fertilizing and water demands, and the trellises. What isn’t the same are the pests, the temperatures, and the day light hours available. John and Rita were truly blazing a trail in that way. Initially, they planted five varieties and four rhizomes of each variety with the goal of organic certification from the beginning. Within the first year, it was clear that two of the varieties were not going to thrive in this area. Now Blue Ridge Hops focuses on just three varieties. Cascade, Nugget, and Magnum. They also saw a need for taller trellises. Rather than keep the twelve foot poles they started with, they decided to replace them with poles that they cut themselves out of Black Locust that they harvested from their property. The new poles are between twenty and twenty-two feet tall, and the hop cone production has nearly doubled because of the change. The couple also saw an opportunity to make harvesting simpler and faster by adding a winch system that would raise and lower the bines, cutting out the need for ladders and making harvest three times faster. This also allows for multiple harvests throughout the season, as not all the hops are at their peak at the same time.
It has been a lot of trial and error to get to where Rita and John are today with their farm. Blue Ridge Hops now has their organic certification. A process that is much easier said than done. They are marketing their hops to commercial breweries, home brewers, and herbalists. They’ve added rhizomes to their annual offerings, and you can find their hop shoots on the menu at several Asheville restaurants during the spring and summer months. Just in the last two years, they’ve begun to turn a profit, but as John is quick to point out, “We don’t pay ourselves!” Rita wrote for and received a grant from Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) to help with startup expenses. Now, she pays it forward by helping other hops farmers get started. She shares her knowledge and expertise with the community in a number of ways. Recently, she gave a talk at the Marshall Library on a snowy night that was very well attended. She has worked with the Extension Office in Madison County and the North Carolina State University Research and Extension Center in Mills River and in Raleigh to share information on what has worked and not worked for them. [If you are wondering what an Extension Office is, you aren’t alone. The definition on their website reads “The Cooperative Extension System is a nationwide, non-credit educational network. Each U.S. state and territory has a state office at its land-grant university and a network of local or regional offices. These offices are staffed by one or more experts who provide useful, practical, and research-based information to agricultural producers, small business owners, youth, consumers, and others in rural areas and communities of all sizes.”] On March 13-14, she and Dr. Davis shared their collective knowledge to a sold out crowd of current and would-be hop growers from North Carolina and Virginia alongside David Goode from Piedmont Hops in Virginia at the NC-VA Regional Hops Conference. No one expected this event, now in its second iteration, to be so large so fast.
If you didn’t get one of the 200 seats available in Dr. Davis and Rita’s Friday beginner lecture, but want to plant your own hops at home, here’s what you need to know: 1. Research further before you plant. There is a wealth of information on line at www.ncherb.org 2. Make sure you are getting quality rhizomes from a trusted source. 3. Plant in the spring in nitrogen rich soil, and provide a lot of sun and water. 4. Have a trellis system ready! These plants can grow a foot or more a day! Dr. Davis encourages folks to get creative with their trellises, and she adds, “A Google image search on home hops trellis systems can turn up hours of fun!” 5. Don’t just plant hops. Have a diversity of plants in your yard. Biodiversity can reduce the loss to pests, and possibly also diseases. 6. Make a home brew with it, and invite me over when it’s ready! To learn more about Dr. Jeanine Davis, visit her website at http://www.ncherb.org. To learn more about Blue Ridge Hops visit http://www.blueridgehops.com/
*First printed in WNC Woman Magazine, April 2015 issue.