Ask anyone what they know about hops, and most likely they’ll be able to tell you that hops have SOMETHING to do with the taste and aroma of some of their favorite beers, but they might not be able to identify a field of hops or understand how hops are used in the brewing process. Hop production is expanding rapidly throughout the U.S., and an interest in hop farming in North Carolina is growing, too, as our state has one of the fastest-growing craft beer industries in the nation.
A History of Hops in the U.S. and North Carolina
Hops were first imported by European immigrants in the early 1600s. Because beer was such an important part of the early American diet, hop growing quickly spread up and down the East Coast. As a result of aphid infestations in the Northeast late in the 19th century, production expanded into other parts of the country, including what is today the nation’s primary hop-growing region: Oregon, Washington, Idaho and California. Over the past 80 years, both USDA and private hop breeding programs have developed in the Northwest and elsewhere, including in North Carolina, where this industry is just starting to take off in the mountain region.
Hops’ Starring Role in the Brewing Process
“Bittering hops” added at the start of the brewing process balance out the sweetness of the malt by increasing the acid level of the mixture. This acidity is brought about through the process of boiling the fragrant flowers of the female hop plant and adding the resins and oils from the flowers into the brew. Hops added toward the end tend to have a lower level of acid, which flavors the brew and adds the very distinctive “hoppy” aroma that so many beer aficionados crave.
Hop Farming, Facts and Varieties
The vast majority of hop production takes place in the Pacific Northwest; just 4%, according to the USA Hops organization, occurs in other states, including North Carolina. On commercial farms in the Northwest, one acre of mature plants yields around 2,000 pounds, or 10 bales, of dried hop cones, and one of these bales yields anywhere from 135 to 800 barrels of beer. Outside the NW region, smaller farms supply local craft brewers, but hop growing is still a small crop in economic terms. Hops thrive in a sunny climate and are best grown in geographical locations – between 35 and 55 degrees latitude – with long days and cooler than average winters.
There are around 80 small hop farms in North Carolina, just a handful of which are able to supply enough hops for any large-batch brewing. Most NC hops are sold to smaller-scale brewers who still pick them by hand, but this demand is high, and hop prices, as a result, are climbing quickly. As hop demand increases, so does the process of experimentation and development that will eventually, no doubt, mean even greater expansion of hop production in our state.
Hops have several unique features, including the fact that they grow on bines, not vines (a bine twists around something, and always in a clockwise direction, whereas a vine grows in tendrils, in various directions), and up to 12” a day! Only the female plant is able to produce the actual hop “cones.”
Among the many varieties of hops grown in America – over seventy-five – three of these are grown most successfully in our state.
- Chinook. This hop, with a high level of acid and a heavy aroma, is most commonly used in the production of stouts, porters, barley wine and bitter lagers.
- The Nugget variety also has a high acid content and an herbal, spicy bitterness. It is used in the brewing of pale ales, IPAs, porters, stouts and lagers.
- Cascade. This variety is an aroma hop, which can be described as flowery and citrusy and is most commonly used in the production of pale ales, barley wines, porters and witbier, which is a pale ale with a high wheat content.
Hops’ Healthy Benefits
According to certain specialists in alternative medicine, some of the essential oils and flavonoids found in the plant’s buds have anti-inflammatory, anti-anxiety, and pain-relieving abilities; researchers have also shown that they are effective at fighting insomnia, cardiovascular disease and depression. Some more controversial studies even indicate that hops – more specifically, the compound xanthohumol – may have cancer-fighting properties.
Agritourism: The Hops Farm Tour
If you’ve ever had your own yen to grow hops or just have a curiosity about how a hop farm functions, check out the Farm Boy Farms’ Hop Farming Tour
, in Pittsboro. Owner Dan Gridley’s interest in beer brewing compelled him to start growing hops (in additional to barley, wheat and rye), supplying local microbreweries and sharing his knowledge with the community in the form of immersive and interactive farm tours, which vary by season.
2021 Hop Festivals
Several annual beer events take place around the state, but two of the most notable festivals celebrating the thriving craft brewing industry – both of which were on hiatus in 2020 due to Covid – are scheduled for fall of 2021.
The Hops & Hogs Fest, happening Saturday and Sunday September 4th and 5th at Charlotte’s Park Expo Center, celebrates that perfect festival combination of beer, barbecue, and music and will feature a “craft corral lineup” of outstanding breweries, including Asheville’s own Bhramari Brewing Co. and Huntersville’s award-winning D9 Brewing.
A specific date has not yet been scheduled for Hickory, NC’s Hickory Hops Craft Beer & Music Festival
, but the annual September event will feature the product of several local craft breweries and a full schedule of music. North Carolina Hops and Growing Hops.