Hop field day draws more than 100

Saturday morning is an unusual time for a crop field day, but that didn’t stop more than 100 participants who attended N.C. State University’s Research Hop Yard Tour and field day held July 14 in Raleigh.

Commercial and home brewers, along with growers and N.C. Cooperative Extension agents, made for an overflow crowd at the J. Edward Booth Field Learning Lab, off Lake Wheeler Road. It was the second hops education event offered by College of Agriculture and Life Sciences faculty this month. The first was at the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research Station in Mills River, near Asheville, on July 5.

The crowd reflected a growing interest in craft brewing in North Carolina, home to more than 60 craft breweries. The state’s craft beer climate has attracted attention of major craft brewers, like Sierra Nevada, New Belgium and Oskar Blues that plan to locate breweries here in the near future.

To get out word of the field day, Scott King, Cooperative Extension associate in soil science, contacted the N.C. Brewers Guild, commercial growers and Extension agents, as well as home brew supply stories in the Triangle area.

“There is interest here in growing hops,” King said. “But we need to temper that enthusiasm.”

A reality check on hop production was part of the goal of the field day and more informal hop yard tour held in Mills River, which drew about 30 participants. Presenters emphasized that there is still much to learn about hops production in the Southeast, its challenges and profitability.

N.C. State University is relatively new to hop research. The Lake Wheeler Road hop yard was started only three years ago, and the one at the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research Station was developed last year.

At the field day, King and Jeanine Davis, Extension horticulturist based in Mills River, shared information on hop production and variety trials at both N.C. State in Raleigh and Mills River. Though there are more than 100 varieties of hops grown throughout the world, those that appear to produce best here are Zeus, Cascade and Chinook.

Choosing the right variety to grow is important for a successful hop harvest in North Carolina, Davis said, adding that the state had a hop industry more than 100 years ago. A 2007 worldwide hop shortage, along with renewed interest from craft brewers, has sparked new interest in hop production here.

In the United States, the modern hop industry has been concentrated in the Pacific Northwest, where long summer days produce an abundant harvest. Growers in the Southeast, where summer days are shorter than the Pacific Northwest, can’t expect to achieve the yields seen further north.

“You can grow hops in North Carolina,” Davis said. “The question is can we do it commercially? Hops won’t be a commodity here, but it could be a niche crop.”

Currently, there are roughly 60-80 hop yards in the state, and several hop producers were among those attending the field day. Managing plant diseases and insect pests are among the challenges that hop growers face.

Hops on the bine
These hop cones are on bines climbing a mesh net at the hop yard.

Hops are small, papery cones that grow on bines – the name for a vine without tendrils. Along with grain, water and yeast, hops are a key ingredient in most beer, giving it a citrusy or even bitter taste.

Hop bines are trained to grow upward along a trellis. In Europe, bines are often trained to run up a “May pole”-like structure, with lines that run from the top of a pole to the ground. Here, more growers are using a Pacific Northwest-style trellis, training the bines to grow up cords that run from the ground to a heavy wire suspended between two tall poles.

At N.C. State’s hop yard, the poles are 12 feet high, so researchers can harvest from a step ladder. At the Mills River hop yard, the poles are 20 feet high and rigged so the trellis wire can be lowered to harvest the 20-foot bines.

Hannah Burrack, N.C. State Extension entomologist, told participants that a variety of insects threaten hops in North Carolina, including spider mites, the hop aphid and hop stalk borer, the Eastern comma caterpillar, as well as thrips and leafhoppers. Burrack described how integrated pest management – the practice of minimizing insect interest, monitoring insect activity and managing pest problems that reach an economic threshold — is the best way to control insects on hops.

Hop bines are perennial and can survive 50 to 60 years. The biggest disease threat to the plants is from downy and powdery mildew, which can be controlled only by planting disease-resistant, healthy rhizomes from a certified nursery and applying fungicides approved for use on hops when disease appears.

Soil fertility is important to keep in mind when planting hops, King said. He urged growers to have soil tested and add the proper nutrients before planting hops. Because the plants grow quickly, they need lots of food.

Weed control in hop yards can also be challenging. Davis said that polypropylene ground cloth has been used effectively in Mills River. In one of the demonstration areas at N.C. State’s hop yard, weeds have been left unchecked to determine what effect that practice could have on production.

Davis said one of the hop industry’s greatest needs is for a dedicated plant pathologist on the East Coast. Disease management strategies that work for the industry in the Pacific Northwest won’t necessarily work here, she said.

The field day presenters also urged potential hop growers to be sure they know how and where they will sell their crop before planting. If they plan to sell wet hops to a brewery, they may plant one variety that can be harvested – and brewed – all at one time. For the home brew market, growers might consider planting several varieties that can be harvested and ready at different times.

For more information on hop production, visit the N.C. Hops Research Project website, nchops.soil.ncsu.edu and the Southern Appalachian Hop Guild, southernappalachianhopsguild.blogspot.com.

See slide show of photos from the hop yard tour.

–N. Hampton

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