It's 100 degrees in the sun and the red clay earth is baked as hard as bricks. The corn is withdrawing, curling its leaves in a futile attempt to withdraw from the heat. Adjacent to the cornfield, the hops bines, as they're called, are clinging to their 12-foot trellises, trying to withstand a climate that is foreign and confusing to them.
N.C. State Extension Associate Scott King surveys the university's research hops farm, a quarter-acre plot in the middle of Raleigh off Tryon Road that is home to 10 varieties, including those popular in the Northwest: Cascade, Centennial, Zeus, Willamette, Chinook.
King snaps a dead leaf off a bine, then caresses another as if to soothe it. He breaks a cone between his fingers, releasing a bright, refreshing citrus fragrance: the smell of the hop.
Hops grow best in the cool climes of the northern latitudes, where they take root in black loam and bask in summer daylight that can last as long as 16 hours: England, Germany, the Pacific Northwest. In other words, not Central North Carolina, with its unforgiving clay, hot and humid summers, warm winters and, because we are farther south, shorter day length during the prime growing season.
But North Carolina brewers, growers, researchers and beer drinkers agree that with the right hops variety, one grown to tolerate less sunlight, along with investments in farm machinery and processing centers, hops could be a robust niche industry in this region and in the mountains, where there are fledgling hops farms.
"It's not going to replace Christmas trees or tobacco," says King, who works in the department of soil science. "But with the explosion of the microbreweries in North Carolina, there's a demand for it. We can't fill the demand."
King, who will help lead a workshop on hops this week (see box at right), acknowledges that prospective hops farmers probably shouldn't give up their day jobs. The soil requires enriching, the pests need killing and the fields need irrigating.
In Raleigh and at the mountain plots, N.C. State researchers are studying the hop plants' fertility and vulnerability to pests and disease, such as downy mildew, which thrives in humidity. They analyze the chemical profile of the hops, and track which varieties are the hardiest.
"Forget about the Old World British hops," King advises. "American varieties do better here."
Unlike corn or soybeans, which can be harvested the year they're planted, it takes two years for hops plants to take hold. And hops are labor intensive. Cherry-pickers hoist workers to the top of trellises—most are 20 feet tall rather than N.C. State's shorter ones—but the vines are stripped of the cones by hand. It can take six workers one hour to harvest two vines. And since hops go bad quickly, they need to be dried in kilns and converted into pellets almost immediately.
Win Bassett is executive director of the N.C. Brewers Guild, a nonprofit advocating for the state's craft brewing industry. "Right now the big problem is volume. It's a very new industry for this side of the country," Bassett says of North Carolina hops. "It's going to take someone with knowledge. We don't have the expertise that they have in other parts of the world."
Enter Greg Lewis. He is among the world's foremost authorities on hops. A botanist with a doctorate in plant breeding and genetics, Lewis hails originally from England, where he worked in the hops industry. From there, he globetrotted for 25 years, including stints in Australia and the Pacific Northwest, where he joined the company Hopunion USA.
There he inherited a hops breeding program and, he says, "found a good-looking plant at Row 9, Hill 17." He expanded that good-looking plant to field trials. It became Columbus, one of the most popular and widely used hops in America. As the person who selected the plant, he co-owns the patent with Charles Zimmerman, who created it, and Henry Hazenberg, who propagated it.
(Seth Gross, owner of Bull City Burger and Brewery, befriended Lewis and last fall used the Columbus hop, plus Cascade and UK Goldings, to brew a limited American/ British hybrid called Movamber Ale. "We used the Columbus hop because that is Greg's baby," Gross says.)
For the past nine years, Lewis has lived quietly with his wife, Trish, in Wake Forest. He's out of the hops business, as much as a hops expert and enthusiast can be, and works for Plant Health Care, which develops natural and sustainable agricultural products.
"When I moved to the U.S. I realized that American microbrewers and their consumers are open to experimenting and trying almost anything," says Lewis, who, for someone honored with the coveted title Knight of the Order of the Hop, is remarkably friendly and down-to-earth. "Brewers aren't hidebound and will try different things. As a result some great beers have been born."
The son of a farmer, Lewis was raised on the Welsh border in Herefordshire, England. As a college student, he worked under Dr. Ray Neve in the laboratory of the "father of hop breeding," professor E.S. Salmon. It was Salmon who developed Northern Brewer, Brewer's Gold and several other well-known hops.
Lewis says that with the right experimentation, North Carolina could grow existing American hop varieties. It may also be possible to breed and tweak varieties that already grow well in the Southern Hemisphere. And while the breeding process usually takes about eight years, Lewis believes it can be done, under controlled conditions, in four.
"I sense the brewing industry in North Carolina is keen to try something new and locally grown," says Lewis, who is growing a few hop plants in his back yard among the cabbages, tomatoes and peppers. "Given my experience with hops around the world, I'm quite excited by the prospect of hop growing here in North Carolina."
Lewis acknowledges there are obstacles and risks. To provide the trellis, planting materials and labor would cost at least $2,000 an acre. Picking machines can range from $13,000 to $180,000, depending on the size.
The state's farmers would be wise to learn from Germany, Lewis says. The second-largest hops producer in the world, Germany has an average farm size of only 10 to 20 acres, far smaller than the vast tracts in the Pacific Northwest. Germany also uses smaller equipment, more suitable for the scale of North Carolina farms.
North Carolina's focus on locally grown crops is reminscent of a time in the United Kingdom when an intimate relationship between growers and brewers existed. "The brewer would visit the field and check on the hops, a true locavore philosophy," Lewis says. "This brings a sense of community and gets us back to the old way of doing things."
Many local breweries and brewpubs—including Bull City Burger and Brewery, Fullsteam and Big Boss Brewing—grow their own small plots of hops for special, small-batch beers. Otherwise, they buy dried hops from the Pacific Northwest and Europe. Commercial suppliers also provide brewers with a chemical profile of the hops so that recipes can be adjusted accordingly to maintain a consistent flavor.
There just aren't enough hops to source them locally.
"Fresh hops are wonderful, but they are fresh for only a couple of days," says Bull City Burger and Brewery's Gross. "And depending on the style of beer, like an IPA, I need 30 pounds of hops."
North Carolina's hops shortage is compounded by the fact that microbreweries—the Triangle teems with them—use more hops per barrel than major breweries do in mainstream lagers and ales.
"I think if the supply can meet it, the demand is already there," Gross says. "I know a lot of breweries would love to use local ingredients. If I could switch to North Carolina hops and have the quality I need, I'd be willing to pay a little more."
Ben Woodward, owner of Haw River Farmhouse Ales in Saxapahaw, grows about 15 hop plants near his brewery, scheduled to open at the end of the year. The plants have sprouted crowns, a good sign, although "the heat is not making them happy," he says.
Woodward plans to brew a 100 percent local beer, including malt from North Carolina barley farmers, but only in small batches. "I'd love to see North Carolina hops being branded as something special," he said. "If we ended up with something viable and could integrate it into a craft brewery, that is what would make it unique."
At N.C. State's research plot, King ascends a ladder to fix a trellis that has blown down in the recent windstorms. Folded in on itself, the trellis could kill the hops plants that he has patiently trained to climb it. Theses plants survived, thankfully. They are among the best performers and perhaps represent the future of the state's hops industry.
"When I'm out here alone in the heat and the sun, I talk to them," King says.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Field of dreams."