Hops growing on the minds of Appalachian agriculture
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.”
Dunkelberg owns the Coffee Cup Café in Clyde, but she also runs H&K Hops Farm in Beaverdam. Coming into her sixth year of growing hops — a key ingredient in craft beer — she’s pushing the boundaries and expectations of someone being able to actually produce hops in this mountainous region.
“We’ve just got to keep moving forward,” she said. “We need to keep getting more people involved, keep working with local brewers, doing the right thing, which is quality over quantity.”
Dunkelberg isn’t alone in her quest. Amid the recent craft beer explosion in Western North Carolina, where dozens of breweries have seemingly emerged on every Asheville street and in all the region’s small towns, the area is now an epicenter for the industry. That sudden influx of business and interest has also shifted the need into overdrive for hops, grains, malts and other materials used in the brewing process.
“I think what plays in our favor here for hops is the fact of our market. We’ve got a large number of breweries here,” said Dr. Jeanine M. Davis, associate professor and extension specialist for the Department of Horticultural Science at N.C. State University, which currently runs the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research & Extension Center in Mills River.
Aside from Asheville being named “Beer City USA,” a growing need for local ingredients and producers has also popped up. Everything from local honey and apples are being used in seasonal and specialty craft beer batches. And with that, comes a need for local hops as an ingredient for these unique projects. Brewers want to be able to produce and sell a craft beer as unique and around-the-corner-fresh as the WNC farmers themselves.
“I’ve spent years doing research, trying to find out more about commercializing my hops,” Dunkelberg said. “People are looking towards me for the information. I will show them how I’ve been growing hops and how they too can do it themselves.”
From the ground up
A homebrewer for the better part of the last decade, Dunkelberg has been experimenting with growing hops for about half that time. On her eight-acre farm, she takes large cattle fence panels (50 inches wide by 16 feet long) and leans them against a 12-foot post vertically. Each of her 20 panels has 10 rungs, with each rung overtaken by one hop bine (they’re named that because they climb but don’t have the tendrils that vines do).
“They grow clockwise towards the sun,” Dunkelberg said. “They come right up and roll up the panels, sometimes growing a foot a day.”
Hops need approximately 15 or more hours of daylight and can grow between 35 and 55 degrees latitude, with Western North Carolina hovering right above the 35 degree mark. That slim latitude difference equates to a smaller yield of hops compared to the massive operations farther up in the Pacific Northwest.
The hop bines are each buried within large dirt mounds placed in front of each panel. The mound allows water to soak in but not drown the plant as it trickles down to the ground. Hop plants are perennials, which allows them to survive and remain dormant throughout the winter until spring arrives.
With the growing season beginning in March, Dunkelberg lets the plants grow wild until the end of April, when she cuts them down so that they can restart their growth period that will correlate ideally with the harvesting period from mid- to late-August. The hops grow vertically until around the summer solstice (June 21), only to then spend the following months sprouting their cone-shaped buds.
“Cutting them down pushes the harvest season ahead because you don’t want to be picking hops in July when you haven’t maximized your growing season,” she said.
Once the hops are collected, they must be dried in a space with constant heat ranging from 100 to 120 degrees for upwards of 24 hours and then packaged correctly thereafter. It is a tight timeline, with the simplest of mistakes or temperature drops able to destroy an entire harvest.
“Hop farming is hard as hell,” Dunkelberg said. “When the hops are ready, they’re ready. They don’t care if you worked a full day beforehand. But, it keeps me moving, keeps me in the dirt, keeps me close to nature, keeps me in the real stuff.”
Drink it up
At Frog Level Brewing in Waynesville, owner/brewer Clark Williams is all for hops grown locally.
“I would use local hops every chance I got — in a heartbeat,” he said. “I’d buy them all and use them. I hope others will grow them, because the industry will gobble them up.”
In recent years, Frog Level created a brew using materials from Winding River Hops in Clyde. According to Williams, that farm didn’t appear to have planted any new crops. Last month, Frog Level released a pale ale, “Frog P,” which included hops from H&K. Williams worked closely with Dunkelberg in using her Cascade variety of hops — the most popular and adaptable strain in the craft beer industry. For the 150 gallons of “Frog P” brewed, Williams estimated he used upwards of eight pounds of Dunkelberg’s hops.
“It’s Haywood County hops grown in Haywood County soil,” he said. “It’s a total woodsy flavor, with a real earthy taste to it. I couldn’t have planned on anything better coming out of that beer — it was a great beer.”
Whether it is a brewery or restaurant, Williams noted that any time a local business uses local ingredients, everybody wins.
“We’re all in this together, where together we succeed and individually we will fail,” he said.
Across town at BearWaters Brewing, owner/brewer Kevin Sandefur has used Haywood County hops twice. In 2012, he became the first Haywood brewery to incorporate local hops into a batch. The hops from H&K were used in their centennial harvest ale. Sandefur also used his own hops (grown in the garden at the brewery) for another seasonal brew last fall. As well, the brewery currently has plans to do a local hop batch for 2014.
“For the most part, hops do really well here, but they just don’t have the ‘oomph’ that West Coast hops have,” he said. “It’s something the growers will have to work towards, with soil pH and mineral contents getting better, and the main issue of getting a processor to come in to do the drying and processing of the hops.”
Sandefur is optimistic that with such a robust craft beer infrastructure in Western North Carolina, it’s only a matter of time before regional growers and brewers will reach the needed levels of quality local hops to meet certain production demands.
“A majority of materials needed are made and grown here,” he said. “In the brewing industry, we’re getting closer everyday to where we’ll have a true local product with that total connection to the local organic movement.”
When questioned about a possible hops shortage with the recent national craft beer explosion and the idea of supply not meeting demand, Sandefur definitely is aware of the growing need for hops on a consistent basis.
“We’re approaching pre-Prohibition numbers of breweries operating, but the number of hop growers in this country has never been lower, so that’s a bad ratio to have these days,” he said. “Suppliers are really struggling to keep up. Many times I’ve called them and they’ve ran out of things I needed. If you’re not under contract, you’re not guaranteed anything — there’s a lot of scrambling in the marketplace to grab any hops available.”
Sandefur also pointed to the recent legalization of marijuana in Washington and Colorado, two of the largest hop growing states in America. Add in the fact that marijuana and hops are in the same plant family, and you have the possibility of hop farmers switching over to the more profitable marijuana crop.
“The plants are in the same family, so conditions will be perfect for growing marijuana,” he said. “You have to consider then that growers out there might start scratching their heads, wondering if they should switch crops.”
Up at Tipping Point Brewing in downtown Waynesville, co-owner Jon Bowman said although the business isn’t currently using local hops, plans are in the works to make that notion a reality.
“Yes, we will at some point definitely do a project with local hops, we just haven’t had the right beer or specialty brew come up,” he said. “If we could use local hops and grain for all of our beer, we would. It’s just not out there yet.”
Homegrown in Haywood
Growing hops is not necessarily a new thing for Haywood County. Beyond the horticulture enthusiasts and homebrewers who may plant a couple lines of hops each year, there are other operations like H&K that have popped up. One of the initial farms was Winding River. Run by Scott Grahl and Stephanie Willis, the farm came to fruition in 2009 through a grant from the Tobacco Trust Fund — an organization aimed at converting former tobacco farms into other avenues of alternative crops and sustainable agriculture.
“Tobacco has been an industry here for years, but this is another way to use the land because the hops industry is definitely paying more than what is paid for tobacco or tomatoes,” said Clark Williams, owner/brewer at Frog Level. “It’s a demand that’s definitely not going away.”
Currently, the price per pound of hops hovers around $15, with each plant yielding about two to four pounds of wet hops. The Mountain Horticultural Crops Research & Extension Center in Mills River estimates 1,000 plants can be grown per acre, with a potential gross return nearing $30,000.
“It’s difficult to compare established tobacco production with the new hops production in terms of income, because everyone is still getting established with hops, have not received economically viable levels yet, haven’t mechanized, etcetera,” said Dr. Jeanine M. Davis of the extension center. “But, there are lots of ifs and buts included [in these figures]. And, those are gross returns. There is a lot of labor involved in growing hops, so net returns will be much less. As you can see, the potential is there.”
Those figures combined with an ever-growing regional interest in hops, has only fueled the pursuits of Nick McCracken, co-owner of Mountain Hop Farm in Iron Duff.
“I’ve always been fond of growing things. I was raised growing tobacco,” he said. “[Even though] I started late, I felt there was a niche for locally grown hops that brewers could use.”
McCracken got in contact with Dunkelberg through the Small Business Center at Haywood Community College. From there, the duo collaborated and traded notes of the best methods and techniques to produce the finest hops Western North Carolina soil could yield.
“This past year’s rainfall was a blessing and a curse,” he said. “We had bines well over 20 feet tall, but we also saw a lot of downy mildew appear. Another factor is our temperature. Being in the mountains, it helps.”
And though most commercial hops are grown in the Pacific Northwest, McCracken feels Southern Appalachia can find its rightful place in the market.
“When compared to the Pacific Northwest, we receive more daylight than they do,” he said. “Plants in the northwest will have a longer growing season than we will. [But], steps such as early pruning can help offset this disadvantage. We have to learn how to maximize our yields in order to be competitive.”
While the local hop farms and curious gardeners alike tweak their methods, the interest will grow from not only horticulturists, but also brewers and craft beer enthusiasts, too.
“We believe the future of hops in Haywood County is bright,” McCracken said. “It’s by no means a slam dunk. We have to continue to work hard to provide breweries with the highest-quality ingredients they can find — that’s what will set their craft beers apart from the rest and keep them coming back to our farms.”
Finding a niche
So, beyond all of the optimism, research and booming craft beer industry, is growing hops in Haywood County and beyond a viable option for the region?
“Hundreds of people are attempting to grow hops throughout the state at varying levels of success,” said Kelly Gaskill, a technician at the extension center. “[It’s] still a very young industry, and we have a long way to go before understanding whether or not growing this crop will be successful or profitable.”
The extension center is entering its fourth year of growing a research hop yard variety trial in Mills River. The facility is used for agriculture research, as well as an outlet to local farmers and growers looking for new and innovative ways to yield the best produce possible.
“This research has shown clear differences in the 12 [hops] varieties [we tested], and we’ve identified the major pests associated with growing hops in Western North Carolina, including the control of downy mildew, two-spotted spider mites, and Japanese beetles,” Gaskill said.
Dr. Jeanine M. Davis of the extension center also noted that growing hops isn’t an easy business. Rather, it’s one that is labor-intensive with small profit margins, if any, at least for the first few years of operation.
“Most people trying hops are people who haven’t been farmers before or specialize in high-intensity horticultural crops,” she said. “It’s a long-term commitment and may take years to actually make money doing it. But, we’re always looking for new ways to farm around here and find ways to help people make a living farming.”
The local interest is there, however, and spreading. Dunkelberg held a hops workshop (“The Business of Growing Hops”) at HCC last year to a room of over 70 people, all eager to learn more about the crop and how they could apply it to their own land and practices. Another workshop (“Hops for Business, A Local Approach to a Nationwide Phenomenon”) will be held by Dunkelberg on March 18 at the school. Courses on hops are also being held at Asheville-Buncombe Tech.
“There’s so much interest in hop growing right now,” Gaskill noted. “My advice to interested growers is to start small and visit as many established hops yards as possible, to see what is working or not working, and go from there. Hops are fun to work with, they’re unique and appealing, but this crop is also very challenging and labor-intensive.”
Regardless of whether or not hops will become a mainstay in Western North Carolina agriculture, Dunkelberg remains on the front lines, ready and willing to share her passion as she continues her education and pursuit of quality hops from her own backyard. After sending away a sample of her crop last year to Appalachian State University’s fermentation site, the laboratory sent her back the results — “very good, quality hops,” with her alpha, beta and moisture content at the same quality levels as commercial grade hops.
“Is there a market for locally grown hops? I think so,” Dunkelberg said. “I’ll never be able to grow enough hops to supply a large company like Sierra Nevada, but you have all of these smaller breweries here that we can supply now — quality hops make quality beer.”
Want to know more?
A seminar “Hops for Business, A Local Approach to a Nationwide Phenomenon,” will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday, March 18, in the Student Center Auditorium at Haywood Community College in Clyde.
The seminar will provide an overview of the hops growing business and provide an excellent networking opportunity for local hops growers and potential growers. Attendees will explore the seasonal processes of hop cultivation and marketing strategies for the developing hops industry. Hops growers will discuss tools and information to optimize efforts and harvest.
Heidi Dunkelberg of H&K Hops Farm will be the presenter. Dunkelberg has been growing hops in the Beaverdam community of Canton for five years.