Heidi Dunkelberg is determined to make hops synonymous with Western North Carolina.
“I’ve got to figure it out,” she said. “There’s just got to be some way, there’s just got to be.”
“One day a buddy of mine called and said ‘Did you know there is a worldwide hops shortage?’” Grahl said. “From then on, I’ve spent the last three years learning about this plant.”
Grahl still works 12-hour shifts in shipping at the Evergreen Packaging plant in Canton, but he spends the rest of his waking hours on his one-acre hops plantation, the seed project for a dream that one day could evolve into a regional beer festival and the transformation of local agriculture.
Hops plants are essential for making beer, providing the essential acids that deepen its flavor profile and act as a bittering agent. North Carolina brewers mainly rely on hops produced in Washington and Oregon, but agriculture specialists believe hops could one day become a viable cash crop that could replace tobacco on small farms across the state.
Grahl and his girlfriend Stephanie Willis both come from families that farmed tobacco in Haywood County. With the help of a Tobacco Trust Fund grant aimed at converting historic tobacco farms into other means of sustainable agriculture, Grahl started Winding River Hops on one-acre of pine scrub off Thickety Road, within spitting distance of I-40.
After burning the land, Grahl added three truckloads of horse compost, two of mushroom compost and a whopping three tons of lime to bring the pH in line with what hops need to grow.
“We wanted to see how quickly we could take poor soil and turn it around,” Grahl said.
Grahl’s project isn’t the only one in Western North Carolina. He has joined experimental farmers in Madison and Buncombe counties to form the Southern Appalachian Hops Guild.
That group is relying on scientific expertise from the N.C. State Soil Science and Horticulture Departments, which have initiated their own statewide project to improve the market opportunities for North Carolina hops farmers by bettering yields and quality. Their work is funded with a grant from the Golden LEAF Foundation.
Rob Austin, one of the N.C. State scientists involved in the study, said it’s the first time anyone in North Carolina has systematically studied hops production. Austin’s crew has created its own hops yard in Raleigh as a way to try out 10 varieties of plants, but in the meantime, they are also taking regular soil and tissue samples for startup growers around the state.
If there has been a big surprise for the scientists and growers alike, it’s the amount of work required to cultivate hops.
“The amount of labor that’s involved is insane,” Austin said.
“It’s a lifestyle change,” Grahl agreed. “It really is.”
Austin has nothing but admiration for Grahl and his magic acre. The hop plants at Winding River started as rhizomes in May 2009, and now there are three varieties of hops growing in 20 rows on 18.5-foot trellises. That’s 1,320 plants now producing lupulin, the yellow grains that give hops its quality as a bittering agent.
“He’s a true pioneer,” Austin said. “Scott is leading the way in Western North Carolina.”
Grahl has plans to move his operation just down the road to a 30-acre field in Clyde. In preparation for that effort, he’s started exploring the region’s craft beer scene.
“I’ve started drinking micro brews because I like to taste the essence now,” Grahl said, who used to be a Coors Light man.
Asheville was recently named Beer City USA, and the burgeoning brew business in WNC is one impetus for the new hop growing initiative.
“Every brewery from Asheville has said, ‘If you guys will grow it, we’ll buy it,’” Grahl said.
Currently, local breweries have to buy hops from the Pacific Northwest, which has long-dominated the market.
But hops production isn’t just labor intensive in the field; it’s also expensive during processing. In the Pacific Northwest and Germany, hops producers often rely on growing collectives that pitch in to cover the costs of huge industrial dryers and the equipment to convert the dry hops into pellets, which most large-scale brewers use to make beer.
None of the growers in Western North Carolina can afford to make that kind of investment up front.
Grahl believes his immediate future as a grower relies on his ability to market his product as a locally-grown additive for wet-hopped beer, which is a seasonal item that uses recently harvested hop cones.
“I expect from the wet-hopping scene, you’ll one day have a festival in Asheville that the whole Southeast could be a part of,” Grahl said.
In the meantime, he’s working on a project close to his heart: preserving historic farmland by using it.
“We want to maintain land in agriculture that would otherwise be split up for development,” Grahl said. “We can’t stop progress but maybe we can slow down some of the negative aspects and keep what green we still have around here.”
• Winding River Hops farm is participating in a collaborative hops farm tour on July 31. The event includes two farm tours and a tour of the French Broad Brewery. $10. 828.255.5522
• To learn more about Winding River or the Southern Appalachian Hops Guild visit southernappalachianhopsguild.blogspot.com.
Tobacco is no longer the cash crop it once was in North Carolina, but its partner in crime — hops — could be on the way up.
Several small farms across Western North Carolina are experimenting with hops to supply regional microbreweries that pride themselves on a fresh, distinct beer taste.
“What we’ve discovered is ‘yes it will grow here,”’ said N.C. State University Cooperative Extension Agent David Kendall.
The next step is to see if it can be expanded, said Kendall. The mountains are probably the best part of the state for growing hops because the area has low humidity.
It is still “speculative” as to whether there is a market for the hops, said Kendall, but it looks promising.
WNC’s real chance to get into the hops business is by supplying local breweries, said Rita Pelczar, a Madison County hops grower.
Pelczar just started growing hops last year. She was successful with 20 plants, prompting her to add 160 plants this year. She and her husband grew five different varieties.
“They grew real well,” she said. “We spoke with several microbreweries and brewery supply companies and everyone seems excited about using locally grown hops.”
Because of her success, Pelczar received an $8,200 Sustainable Agriculture Research grant, which she will use to expand her operation. Growing hops requires a modest upfront investment in infrastructure, such as 12-foot trellises, she said.
If hops were grown locally, breweries would not have to pay transportation costs to get them from the Pacific Northwest, where most hops are produced, said owner and braumeister of Heinzelmannchen Brewery in Sylva Dieter Kuhn, who brews seven different kinds of beer.
Western North Carolina is beginning to take off as a hot spot for microbreweries, providing a viable market for hops growers.
Dieter’s wife, Sheryl Rudd, said beer at microbreweries is better than mass produced beer because it has an identity, is fresher and has not been sitting on a shelf.
Chuck Blethen, whose group Jewel of the Blue Ridge Marketing put on a workshop last week about growing hops in WNC, said the area is good for the crop because of its low humidity. Blethen noted that the environment is similar to Germany’s where 86,000 acres of hops are grown a year.
“We have potential for supplying hops for the East Coast,” said Blethen, adding that he thinks the idea might start gaining steam. “We think it’s got a great chance to go.”
With Asheville, which has numerous microbreweries, the area is becoming a popular place for specialty beers. Blethen said there are 68 microbreweries in WNC and eastern Tennessee.
There could be a demand for hops nationally and internationally as several large hop farms have recently gone out of business driving up the price as much as 500 percent.
Though there is a market for hops, WNC will never compete with Washington state, the leading hops producer with farms that are hundreds of acres.
In order for this area to be a strong producer of hops there must be a processing station, Kendall said. He is looking into how much such a station would cost.
The processing facility could turn the hops into pellets, dry the hops and include a lab to analyze the alpha and beta acids in the hops, Blethen said. The idea is that the station would be centrally located and available to the regional hops growers, said Blethen.
Wine grapes could also possibly be grown in this region and coupled with hops could be the basis of a good agri-tourism industry, Kendall said.