MANATEE -- With the growth of microbreweries in Florida, agricultural researchers say there may be an opportunity for local farmers to supply one of the key ingredients: hops.
Brewers in Bradenton are intrigued by the idea, as are some in the Manatee County farming community.
The University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences has announced researchers are working to develop a viable hops crop.
Studies are underway at Apopka near Orlando, and at Balm, just north of the Manatee-Hillsborough county line.
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Local farmers and microbrewery operators are intrigued by the idea of developing a viable hops crop in Florida.
"A lot of things are against them in Florida. I would love to see how they are going to do this," said Bob Haa, head brewer for Motorworks Brewing, 1014 Ninth St. W., Bradenton.
Most of the hops grown in America come from the Pacific Northwest, particularly from the Yakima Valley. Hops are also imported from Germany, and increasingly from New Zealand and Australia.
"For the craft beer industry, hops right now are sought after and are in short supply," Haa said. "If Florida became successful at growing hops, it would be a cash crop for sure. But here, of course, we have a lot of sandy soil. Hops like rich loam to grow in. They also like cold temperatures during the seasonal changes to restore the hops' rhizomes (root system) and then, as it gets warmer, to begin growing again. In this state it doesn't quite happen the same way. That being said, I have seen some minor success for some people growing hops in a way that is much less sun intensive."
Hops are a vine that can grow 30-feet tall and produce a flower used in brewing. Hops add a bitter, sharp or citrus flavor to beer and also act as a stabilizer.
Jorge Rosabal, owner-brewmaster of Darwin Brewing Co., 803 17th Ave. W., Bradenton, said the development of a Florida hops crop is a wonderful idea.
"I would love to have hops unique to Florida. They would produce a beer recognized as a Florida beer," Rosabal said.
Rosabal would like to be able to grow hops on a trellis along one side of his brewery.
"It would be like a hops alley, and you could smell the hops. If they want to grow some hops, here they are free to come," Rosabal said.
Motorworks and Darwin both use imported hops pellets in their brewing process.
"It's a little tough for smaller breweries like myself to easily get my hands on new types of hops," Haa said.
Gary Reeder, president of the Manatee County Farm Bureau, was enthusiastic about the possibility of hops being introduced as a cash crop in Florida.
"Anything that will enhance agriculture's role in Manatee County is a good thing," Reeder said.
Ralph Garrison, owner of Suncoast Nursery Inc., said Florida already has more than 130 types of food crops, and he would be interested in taking a look at hops.
"When one market gets down, you will try something else that you can grow for a profit," Garrison said.
Christa Leonard, operations manager at Geraldson Community Farm, has thought about growing hops.
But she notes, "it is quite an expensive endeavor. We would be willing to work with IFAS," she said. "I am glad to see that they are trying to do that."
IFAS researchers are working with a $158,000 grant from the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to develop a viable hops crop.
The project started as a personal experiment by Brian Pearson, an assistant professor of environmental agriculture in Apopka who has been growing hops for two years in his lab.
"I was looking to help homeowners augment what they were growing. It was just a labor of love. Then it dawned on me that this might have some serious potential," Pearson said in a press release.
With the new grant, Pearson is working on the hops project with Zhanao Deng and Shinsuke Agehara , who are based in IFAS' Gulf Coast Research and Education Center in Balm.
Local farmer Ben King, who has shown a willingness to experiment in his choice of crops -- he grows peaches off Caruso Road, and has gone back to the future with his often misshapen heirloom tomatoes -- greeted the news of a possible Florida hops crop with pleasure.
"That's great that they are attempting to find other crops. I love that," King said.
"It seems like a super specialty crop. The question is can they handle our heat and humidity?" King said.
That's the question that Deng, Agehara and Pearson hope to answer.
"Dr. Pearson found that the hops can grow in Florida, but the yield is low. That's one issue," Deng said at the Balm research center.
At Balm, there are only a few hops plants growing in greenhouses now, but researchers plan to add a hops yard, and grow as many as 30 varieties on tall wooden poles.
"We will have several hundred plants in the next few months," Deng said Wednesday afternoon.
Florida researchers can then begin to understand yield potential and resistance to disease and insects.
Sunshine State craft breweries are expected to import about 2 million pounds of hops and hops products in 2016.
The Florida craft beer industry had sales of about $875.9 million in 2013 and has been growing explosively ever since.
The IFAS study will include a survey of Florida breweries to see what type of hops interest them.
James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee reporter, can be contacted at 941-745-7053 or on Twitter@jajones1.