Could hops become a viable crop in North Carolina?

Let me be the first to admit that I have thoroughly enjoyed the craft beer movement. I may have gained 20 pounds from drinking 8 and 9 percent beer on a regular basis, but as Roy Williams would say, daggumit, I enjoyed every sip. In working on my contribution to this week’s beer issue, I learned all about hops. During my time with the craft beer movement, I had, in my naiveté, assumed that the alcohol content was related to the amount of hops used in a beer. I mean, how else did Dogfish Head make the 90 Minute IPA so strong?

It seems that it’s the sugar chain, a term I learned this week, that dictates the alcohol strength. I just love to learn new things.

Which brings me to the many things I learned this week about the potential for hops to become a viable cash crop in the Tarheel state. Most hops are grown in the Pacific Northwest, in the states of Washington, Oregon and Idaho. A mix of cool temperatures and longer daylight along the 48th parallel makes for ideal growing conditions there.

But with more than 100 breweries operating in North Carolina, and more opening each week, some have begun to lay the foundation for hop farming here.

Prof. Jeanine Davis of NC State University is perhaps on the leading edge of that movement. Davis is a professor of horticulture and part of the North Carolina Hops Project. The project is located at the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Center in Mills River. The project began with a grant from the Golden Leaf Foundation in 2010, and moved from Raleigh to Mills River in 2012.

After a setback due to mildew in 2012, yields of Zeus, Cascade and Nugget hops have begun to surge. Cascade is one of the more popular hops, and may prove viable in North Carolina.

“I haven’t talked to a brewer yet that wouldn’t be interested in using it,” Davis said. Testing has shown that Cascade does well in our state’s climate, but the challenge would be to build the support infrastructure to pelletize the hops for long-term storage, if the crop yield eventually was to take off.

Another variety that shows great potential, but is not well known to brewers, is Canadian Red Vine. Its yields dwarf even that of Cascade in the NC Hops Project. During a recent hops grower’s conference in Winston-Salem last month, Davis challenged both brewers and growers to learn more about Canadian Red Vine.

“If that one turns out good for them to use in the brewery, we might have something to work with,” Davis said.

“Its yields are phenomenal for us.”

Davis and her team have identified another hops variety that seems related to Zeus. They will be experimenting with it during the coming growing season.

She’s not sure what variety it is, and will have to do analytical work to see if it can be classified.

“It could be that we will have identified some other new varieties that can get our growers excited and get their yields up,” Davis said.

The NC Hops Project team also is experimenting with technical processes, such as mechanisms to lower the vine for harvest instead of using ladders to access the top vine. This would allow the hops to be grown on the abundant slopes in the foothills and piedmont, leaving flatlands open for vegetables and other established crops.

“This is not a get rich quick scheme,” Davis said. “It’s not for the faint of heart. This is for people who are passionate about growing hops and are willing to figure out how we can make it work in North Carolina. It’s going to be like the wine grape was 18 years ago or so. They are pioneers right now and they are going into it knowing it’s not a sure thing.”

One of those pioneers is Steve Valencsin of Hy Hops in Brown Summit.

Valencsin established 4.5 acres of hops field a few years back. He’s sold his hops to Natty Greene’s in Greensboro for an annual North State Wet Hop brew.

“I’ve been really fortunate being here in Greensboro and being able to work with them,” Valencsin said. He got positive feedback from the brewery on the quality of his hops.

He’s also had his hops tested out in Oregon, where it showed signs of high alpha acids, an indicator of having a strong flavor profile.

“I think the quality isn’t an issue. I think it’s the yield,” Valencsin said. “It’s hard to forecast what the top-end yield might be for these plants because of the shorter day length.”

For Valencsin, so far, the higher sales price of North Carolina hops offsets the lower yield to a degree, but with more than $40,000 invested in his hops yard, he hopes to increase his harvest quickly in the coming years.

“I’ve got a good outlook about it,” Valencsin said. “This year will be my second harvest and will be a pretty good indicator as to whether the yield is increasing.”

Valencsin said his goal is to make the crop economically viable.

“I want this farm to stand alone and be able to support itself,” he said. “I want to be able to have enough viable product in order to be able to market it to the larger brewers who would be interested in having a local hop.” !