Spurred on by the demands of a burgeoning craft brewing industry and a strong public interest in locally grown ingredients, farmers are experimenting with hops (Humulus lupulus) as an alternative income source. Over the past seven years, an increasing community of growers across North Carolina have established hop yards and sold their product to local craft breweries and home brewers. The majority of information and figures regarding hops production in the U.S. is developed for the Pacific Northwest hops industry and is not intended for the unique agronomic, economic, and environmental conditions found in North Carolina. The objective of this project is to help identify the best performing hop cultivars, promising geographic areas for hops production, and the key issues related to nutrition, disease, and pest control. In addition, local market conditions and production costs will also be addressed.
In 2010, with support from the Golden Leaf Foundation, an experimental hop yard was established at the Lake Wheeler Road Field Laboratory in Raleigh, North Carolina. The experimental hop yard includes 200 total hops plants on 1/4 of an acre. The hop yard contains 10 different U.S. hops varieties planted randomly throughout the experimental site. The varieties were selected based on their range of alpha acid content (bitterness), yield potential, disease and pest resistance, total U.S. production, and demand by local craft breweries. The site is designed to test which hop varieties are best suited for North Carolina's unique growing conditions and which varieties offer the greatest potential for commercial production. After two growing seasons, the varieties planted show significant variation in their vigor, height, yield, maturity times, pest and disease resistance, and overall agronomic health. For example, while 7 of the 20 plants of the variety 'Zeus' are at the top of the 12 foot trellis and producing cones, the tallest 'Northern Brewer' is 6 feet, visually stressed, and without cones. Although variation was expected during the establishment year and additional research is needed, it is clear that variety selection will play a significant role in the economic viability of locally grown hops.Due to changes in workforce, the hop yard at Lake Wheeler was dismantled after the close of the 2012 growing season. Efforts shifted to the research hop yard in the mountains at the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Center in Mills River. Established in 2011, this variety trial includes most of the same varieties as the original trial at Lake Wheeler. Additionally, collaborations continue with growers across the state. These growers are working with us to help monitor, test, and analyze various agronomic conditions and their significance throughout the growing season. These pioneering growers have provided an opportunity to analyze the agronomic requirements and disease and pest pressures of hop yards managed under different strategies, in different stages of establishment, and in a different region within the state.