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Wednesday, 25 February 2009 19:18

Could hops be one of WNC’s new cash crops?

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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.

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