Craft beer in the U.S. is a multibillion dollar industry, and along with the thirst for local Florida beer comes a huge demand for hops that brewers want to purchase locally too.
The hops, or humulus lupulus, that brewers in America use mostly come from the Pacific Northwest and Germany — two of the biggest hops markets in the world.
With South Florida brewers paying top dollar to ship hops from elsewhere, there is a real interest in determining if they can source them in-state.
One University of Florida (UF) researcher and home brewer, Brian Pearson, is trying to find out whether a viable hops market can exist in the Sunshine State.
As with many other home brewers in the state, Pearson was curious to see if it was possible. He had difficulty acquiring certain cultivars and began growing hops four years ago when he wanted to wet-hop a batch of beer.
"To have a wet-hopped beer, it's pretty much impossible when not having fresh local hops, and so that was when I first asked myself, 'Can you grow them in Florida?'" Pearson says.
First, he did his research for scholarly articles but found relatively little information. The closest thing he could find was a scientific journal article from North Carolina, and several internet forums also provided some information.
That's when he took out his wallet and planted some hops rhizomes. It wasn't a research program at first so much as it was Pearson's interest. He only planted a handful of varieties but made some interesting observations.
Among the varieties he planted were Snook and Columbus hops, which did "OK" but decreased in yield from one year to the next. Two Neomexicanus varieties, however, showed promise with increased yields year after year. Even more promising is the fact that this variety is native to the U.S.
But the question remained for Pearson: Is there rhyme or reason behind which cultivar did better or worse? With the lack of scientific knowledge, the only way to find out was to plant more hops. What started off as 12 plants has now increased to 375 that are being grown at UF's Mid-Florida Research and Education Center in Apopka.
So, the answer to the question of whether hops can be grown in Florida is most certainly a yes. But the biggest challenge is yield.
"Yields are definitely a lot lower than in the Pacific Northwest," Pearson said, boiling it down to a nature-vs-nurture question. "How much is cultivar and how much is environment, and what could possibly be done either through breeding or possibly manipulation of the environment to overcome that?"
The economics is the biggest question of all. And for that, Pearson applied for a grant that he hopes will bring two economists to work with him in finding a dollar amount — which he says is too early to know.
Besides the lack of any knowledge on Florida-grown hops and the years of research ahead of Pearson, add the fact that they're hard work to grow and harvest. His hops garden consists of multiple 20-foot trellises separated by 50 feet of tension wire with dangling strings tied to it, since hops grow upward.
South Florida's Marco Leyta-Vidal, AKA the Craft Commander, tried growing his own hops but wasn't that successful. He was only able to yield about ten cones, and a lot more is required to make a 5-gallon batch of home brew.
Pearson, however, cites a few success stories. One is a grower from Wildwood (near the Villages) who's been growing hops for two years and was successful enough at it that he purchased more property for this reason.
Earlier this year, Motorworks Brewing Company in Bradenton came out with an American pale ale brewed with Florida hops.
And Pearson hired a person from Citrus County who has had some success in growing hops to help with the garden.
Information from the garden should come in soon, Pearson says. He planted at least 20 more cultivars with some going to cone. Pearson expects year one data to be in about one month from now following harvest.
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