When you pour yourself one of North Carolina's new microbrews, you enjoy pure Tar Heel creativity. But only the artistry and the water are truly native. Chances are, the barley to brew the beer came from a field in Idaho, the yeast from a lab in Colorado and the hops from a farm in Washington—for now.
However, if a few enterprising farmers and a research project in Raleigh play out, some day North Carolina growers might supply the hops that give your favorite beer its bitter bite.
Hops are the newest ingredient in beer, only becoming a standard in the recipe in the 15th century. They are the latest in a long line of herbs added to beer, some stimulating, some sedating, some even said to have aphrodisiacal qualities. Hop plants are climbing vines of the species Humulus lupulus, related to hemp but not smokable. The plant part used in brewing beer is the hop flower, a delicate, pale green, papery cone laden with perishable resins.
Hops are not essential to beer, but without hops beer would be a sickly sweet drink. Hops add bitter and aromatic notes that give a beer balance and serve as a preservative as well. Hops and beer are so closely associated that, with few exceptions, all beers contain hops, and all hops are destined for brewing.
So when a worldwide hops shortage struck a few years ago, the beer industry panicked. A few small-scale farmers, including a handful in the brewery-rich region around Asheville, saw a chance to supply a much-needed commodity. Hops take a few years to get established, and small growers can't expect to produce the quantities or enjoy the efficiencies of big hop farms. But they could hope to capitalize on the desire for locally grown ingredients.
The problem is that hops are a new crop to this region. Keen home brewers living in a variety of climates have grown hops by the trellisload for personal use, but hops' viability as a commercial crop is an unknown. The traditional hop-growing regions around the world are all at higher latitudes and are less humid than North Carolina. But with the right varieties and practices, could North Carolina growers overcome less-than-perfect conditions?
These questions piqued the interest of a group at North Carolina State University. The group obtained a first year of funding from the Golden LEAF Foundation, which supports efforts to find cash crops to replace tobacco. The multidisciplinary team is monitoring four of the mountain hop farms and conducting its own experimental work on a quarter-acre plot off Lake Wheeler Road in Raleigh.
Scott King, a researcher in the NCSU Department of Soil Science, describes the project as "a classic agricultural extension role," where the scientists can explore variables that would prove a potentially ruinous risk for a farmer.
"The experimental design will allow us to play with different factors: pest and disease management, water management, fertilizer regime and pruning base," says King. Most important, the 200 hop plants, established from rhizomes, represent 10 different American hop varieties in the hopes that early results will point to good disease resistance. (Geek alert: The varieties are Cascade, Centennial, Chinook, Willamette, Northern Brewer, Nugget, Mt. Hood, Sterling, Zeus—a very high alpha acid hop not yet in commercial use—and Newport, renowned for disease resistance.)
As the new crop develops in the experimental plot, King hopes that the first year's results will give some good information about potentially viable varieties.
Up in the mountains, microbreweries are very interested in the upcoming hop harvest. Not only is the idea of locally grown hops attractive, the proximity of hop fields gives brewers a chance to brew fresh- or wet-hopped beers. These are beers seasoned with hops that are green and harvested less than 24 hours ahead. Compared with beers using concentrated dried hops, wet-hopped beers require seven times the volume of hops, and instant access. A fresh-hopped North Carolina beer is a possibility for the first time.
Even if the hop fields of North Carolina's Buncombe County never rival Washington's Yakima Valley, the modest hop plant may open new opportunities for the state's farmers and a deepening sense of identity for North Carolina breweries.