Beer. Done well, it’s tasty, refreshing, and can be a lot of fun.
North Carolinians know that craft beer is booming in the state. Over 350 brewers and breweries stretch from the mountains to the sea, all trying to create interesting new flavors from a basic recipe of grains, yeast, water and hops.
That last ingredient, hops, is the subject of today’s episode of Farms, Food and You. This tasty little vine cone gives beer its je ne sais quoi: bitterness, citrus, pine, herbal or earthy notes. And by the way. . .hops can also take credit for starving the bacteria in the beer-making process and that frothy, frothy head on a pint.
As brewing settles into its final heyday, North Carolina state researchers like Jeanine Davis are working to find out which varieties of hops grow best in the state. Their work can lead to the future of craft beer and agriculture.
Launched in 2016, NC State’s hop breeding program involves multiple partnerships, a lot of trial and error, and a bit of luck. Among the priorities: selecting new varieties of hops which naturally produce higher yields in the South.
Currently, North Carolina brewers rely on hops grown on the West Coast. Grapes tend to like 48e parallel and an arid environment, which behave less well in our subtropical climate.
Growing hops in the south is difficult because of the existing varieties we have, but when it’s something that doesn’t grow very easily here, it makes it very expensive. So that’s the goal of our work at the moment, it’s to make it a culture better suited to our region.
So our yields are currently so low that the prices our producers have to pay to make money are higher than what the breweries can pay on a regular basis.
So at the moment our breweries are buying local hops, maybe just harvest to make a fresh hop beer with it or something, but they can’t use it on a regular basis.
We need to bring these yields to a level where it is economically feasible, both for the producer and for the brewer, so that is the goal of our breeding efforts.
Being able to grow hops and getting good yields isn’t the only concern. The hops must produce that taste and aroma that brewers look for in developing their flavor. This is why the hop breeding program also works with brewers large and small to test the hops they produce. One of them is Britt Cox from the Mills River Brewery of the Sierra Nevada in Asheville.
Without hops, beer would essentially be just alcohol and sugar water. Hops are really important in balancing beer.
Without the bitterness and all the flavors and aromas that hops give, beer would be much less special and much simpler.
Hops are what defines an IPA. You know, the craft beer movement in America, some would say, was started by Ken Grossman here in Sierra Nevada in 1980 with Pale Ale. There were a few predecessors, but it really defined the craft beer movement in America and Pale Ale was the first mass-produced hop-forward beer in America.
And the other special thing that we are looking for is that we want flavor. We want aromas that are unique to us.
So this is another thing that we are looking for and why we are working with brewers. So we have local breweries, some very big, some very small, that we supply cones to every year for them to brew and give us their feedback.
A new trial beer – a lager made from hops grown in the state of North Carolina – is now on tap at the Sierra Nevada Brewery.
I think it’s really cool what you are doing. We’ve got to find something to grow here, and the hops turned out to be delicious in the Blonde Ale, so I’m hopeful.
There is therefore a demand for locally grown hops. We have hundreds of craft breweries in this state, so much that they compete against each other. So they’re all looking for that certain angle, and part of it is in marketing, or
what their brewery looks like or the flavors, but for many of them, they want to support local agriculture.
And that’s a good marketing angle for them, yes, we buy locally grown hops.
So what’s next for hops and craft beer? New varieties, higher yields, the potential for a booming hop crop, and unique, forward-thinking beers.
Thank you for joining us on Farms, Food and You. This podcast is a product of NC State Extension and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at North Carolina State University. If you would like to support the show, please share this episode on social media and leave a review on the podcasting app of your choice. We talk soon!