As beer culture explodes, Virginia makes mark for hops
Hops haven’t always been trendy. Pliny the Elder referred to “humulus lupulus” in a botany survey just decades after the birth of Christ, but there’s no record of people using hops for brewing for another eight centuries — in France. By the 1600s the English were cultivating hops as well. Dutch and English settlers brought hops to the New World soon after.
Hop vines — called “bines” — grow vertically on trellises up to 40 feet high, producing cones and flowers that are harvested in August. Brewers use lupulin, a bitter oil from the hop cone, to flavor and preserve the beer. They can practice “dry hopping” or “wet hopping,” mixing either dried or fresh (wet) hops with the drink.
In the early years of the new United States, most hops were grown in New York during the 1800s, but downy mildew and insect pests blighted the crops, driving production out west. The desert climate of Yakima Valley in Washington provided a highly inviting environment for hops, said Rob Sirrine, senior extension educator at Michigan State University. Now, Washington is the nation’s biggest hop producer, with Oregon and Idaho close behind. In 2016 the U.S. was the largest hop producer in the world, followed by Germany, the Czech Republic and China.
In 2007, Mr. Sirrine said, the industry faced a shortage: Low yields in Europe and a warehouse fire in the Northwest strained the supply of hops. At the same time, the craft beer industry was taking off.
“Hop production has expanded to the East solely because of craft beer,” Mr. Sirrine said. Meanwhile, he said, the hops industry in the Northwest is “stronger than ever.”
Farmers should be able to grow hops successfully in Virginia, Mr. Sirrine said, but there will be a learning curve. Timing is crucial for the hop plant, which flowers based on the length of the day and grows best in the 45th latitude, a little north of Virginia.
And though the early returns are promising, commercial hops farming in Virginia is still on trial.
Jonathan Staples, owner of the Lucketts, Virginia-based Black Hops Farm and Vanish Farmwoods Brewery, noted that materials, labor and time spent on hops can easily run up to $10,000 per acre, and he doesn’t expect to get his money back for another four-and-ahalf years.
Craig Nargi, owner of Waynesboro’s Stable Craft Brewing, noted that hops require a lot of water but must be protected from mildew. Japanese beetles are another threat, and harvesting a plant that grow tens of feet in the air comes with its own set of regulations. On top of that, it takes about three years for the crop to reach full production, and Virginia growers are still trying to figure out which hop varieties work best in the area.
But hops also have one very attractive quality for farmers: Their vertical growth pattern means they take up far less land than many other crops. (The word “hop” derives from the Anglo-Saxon word “hoppan” — to climb.)
Virginia Tech and Virginia State University are actively researching the plant’s potential in the state.
“I personally think hop farming is going to continue to grow,” said Mr. Nargi. “Someone’s going to come up with a better way to do it.”