It’s the craft beer crop. Here’s what a Florida hop yard looks like
The booming craft-beer-making industry is worth about $3 billion a year in Florida.
According to researchers with the University of Florida, more of the hop supply for all of that beer could be coming directly from the Sunshine State.
Hops are the plant that put the craft in craft beer.
The resin-filled flowers, or cones, give American craft brews many of their signature qualities, including aroma, bitterness and flavor.
Some growers are already having success with hops — including Twin Bays Hop Farms in St. Petersburg, Florida Hops, LLC in Orlando and Florida Hop Growers in Dade City — and advocates say the time is ripe for more to jump on board.
At the Gulf Coast Research And Education Center in Balm in Hillsborough County, researchers are three years into studying how the hops crop performs in Florida, and they are producing valuable information for current and potential growers.
At a recent Hops Field Day, they led a tour through the center’s hop yards to give a firsthand look at the latest developments.
Craft brewers, farmers, local government and industry representatives and students from around the state were among that group that walked the sun-drenched rows of hop plants for a crash course.
Zhanao Deng, a plant geneticist and a lead researcher on the hops project, highlighted his team’s experiments.
“Here, we’re varying the amount of plants per hole to see how it affects growth,” Deng said, pointing out the health of different specimens in one row.
Deng said that a large amount of the research is devoted to figuring out which varieties grow best in Florida’s climate.
Triple Pearl, Magnum, Chinook and Cashmere are among varieties that have not performed well.
“So far, Cascade has been the No. 1 grower consistently from year to year,” Deng said. “We get about two pounds of fresh hops from a Cascade plant in the spring.”
Cascade also happens to be one of the most-prominent hop varietals used in U.S. craft brewing.
Another variety, called Galena, produced much more in the fall, setting up potential for at least two Florida hop harvests a year.
Humulus lupulus, the hop plant, is a bine — a plant that climbs using shoots.
Among the demonstrations at the Hops Field Day was how to install a twine trellis for the hop bines to climb.
Horticulture lab assistants cranked on a hops harvesting machine for another demo. The machine took in bines full of hops and spat out the cones.
The event concluded with talks from several project researchers who gave insights into different aspects of hops production.
Researcher Aleyda Acosta-Rangel emphasized that Florida is in a good position to become the first major hops producer in the South.
Florida comes with its own set of advantages and challenges when growing hops.
Plant pathologist Gary Vallad pointed out that many diseases common in other hop-producing regions are not a problem in Florida — yet.
“We have not had any issues with downy mildew or powdery mildew,” Vallad said. “But it only takes one person to introduce it on propagated materials coming out of the Northwest. So it’s something you want to be very cognizant of.”
Shinsuke Agehara, another lead researcher on the project, pointed out that Florida’s relatively short hours of daylight means that plants need help from artificial lighting to prevent premature flowering. LEDs left on for several hours at night seem to do the trick.
Another issue to be aware of, according to nematolgist Johan Desaeger, is Florida’s high prevalence of nematodes. The microscopic worms can settle in the roots of hop plants and wreak havoc.
“Every time you see a plant growing poorly in Florida, look below ground,” Desaeger said.
Entomologist Hugh Smith went over the perils of insects and mites — including spider mites that ride to plants on wind-borne blobs.
Smith also observed caterpillar eggs on some plants in the hop yard, but nature took care of the problem on its own. A parasitic wasp laid its eggs inside the pest eggs and they were devoured.
“You have a lot of help out there from nature that we need to understand better,” Smith said.
Fortunately, all of the challenges researchers have encountered have had relatively simple and inexpensive solutions.
Starting a hop yard is a pricier prospect; researchers estimate the start-up costs at roughly $22,000 to $28,000.
The cost was not enough to deter Greg Sheppard, owner of Crooked Rooster Brewery in Macclenny.
Sheppard runs the first craft brewery in Baker County that is known for its cream ales.
He sources his hops from a major supplier, but says he prefers the idea of growing his own.
“I’ve got 50 acres and I’m willing to jump into it now,” Sheppard said. “I live in a small county that takes pride in the local community. Locally sourced, fresh from Florida hops would put Florida on the map on a bigger scale. It also shows off our science and engineering capabilities, and it would be quite a boon to the craft beer market and all of the local breweries.”
The research at the GCREC is still in early stages, but it’s already yielding results.
Multiple Florida breweries have already created beer using hops grown at the facility.
One brewery chose to honor Deng’s work to advance hops growing in Florida with its creation.
“That’s Deng Good” was whipped up at 3 Daughters Brewing in St Petersburg.
It won’t be the last beer made with hops from Florida.
Others crafting with Florida-grown hops include Naughty Monk Brewery in Bradenton, Cigar City Brewing in Tampa, Ten10 Brewing Company in Orlando, Deviant Wolfe Brewing in Sanford, Lake Tribe Brewing Company in Tallahassee and Wicked Barley Brewing Company in Jacksonville.
The installation of a second hop yard is now underway at GCREC, where the the agricultural experiment will continue.