by Tamara Scully
Hops growers in the Northeast have a strong emerging craft brewery market to help spur crop demand. While hops are native to the United States, and have historically been grown commercially in the region during the 1800s, modern production has been concentrated in the western states, in more arid regions.
“Severe disease problems, most notably downy mildew,” in the Northeast remain a challenge, David Handley, Vegetable and Small Fruit Specialists with Maine Cooperative Extension, said. “Downy mildew hasn’t gone anywhere.” Despite this, “the plants can do pretty well in this area,” as long as proper attention is paid to variety, site selection, and cultivation requirements.
Local hops demand
With over 80 craft breweries in Maine alone, the demand for local hops already exists. Brewers are often seeking a specific variety, need a consistent product and large quantity, and want the hops in a certain form.
Hops can be used fresh, but “the timing is critical,” Handley said. Fresh hops are 80 percent water, and the economics and post-harvest handling are precise. Hops can also be dried, with pelletized dry hops being the primary form of use. Hops can be frozen, too.
In order to meet the demand for local hops, a price premium is warranted, Handley said, but may not be enough to overcome challenges. And, as more growers enter into hops production, and supply increases, any price premiums will decrease.
“Labor issues are huge. Minimum wage just went up. High initial investment costs” of about $10,000 – $20,000 per acre, are obstacles, Handley said. With a yield of 1,000 – 2,000 lbs of dried hops per acre, growers would need a minimum of three or four years to recoup startup costs and begin to see a profit.
Steve Miller, Hops Specialists with Cornell Cooperative Extension, emphasizes “it is absolutely critical for all [growers] planning on doing this…to have a mindset that you are going to have the absolutely best quality and yield as possible.”
Some varieties of hops desired by brewers cannot be grown successfully in the Northeast. Aside from downy mildew, Verticillium wilt is also an issue in hops. Growers need to work closely with brewers to select varieties which are in demand, but will also do well in this growing region.
Brewers often seek proprietary varieties, which are owned by individual companies, and cannot be grown. Some hops are aroma types, while others are bittering types. Aroma hops produce oils in demand by the craft brewing industry. Aroma type hops “has a lot more essential oils,” Miller said, which can range from floral, to citrus-y, to unusual.
According to Miller, New York state is further along than Maine in hops production. New York had approximately 400 acres of commercial hops production in 2016, with some growers already yielding 2,000 lbs of dried hops per acres.
“Those people are doing everything right,” Miller said.
Growers already experienced with vegetable production are likely to do better with hops than those who are starting out without knowledge, and without any equipment or labor already in place which can be utilized for hops production, Miller said.
Production of high yielding, high-quality hops begins with proper site selection, preparation, and plant material.
Hop plants grow on vertical trellises, which require time, labor and money. Trellising is 18 feet high — although the plants typically grow only eight to 10 feet the first year — and the wires need to be run straight across between poles. Hilly terrain will not work.
Hops also need to be situated carefully, not only because of the potential for winds to damage the trellising, but also due to cultivation requirements of the crop. They need to be a suitable distance from tree lines, can’t be next to a water body unless they are upslope, and shouldn’t be put on sites with shade issues, particularly morning shade.
Woods, shade and water bodies mean poor air circulation, and an increase in moisture from dew and fog, all of which bring a much greater risk of disease.
Hops are perennial plants, and can be grown in cold climates, down to USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 3 or 4. Plant materials should only be sourced from the National Clean Plant Network, which currently has 30 or so varieties available, found at http://tinyurl.com/jgx6nrk .
“You really have to plan ahead,” for clean plant availability, Miller said. Four greenhouses in New York now produce NCPN hops plugs, with an initial cost of $3.50 – $5 per plant. It is very expensive to produce new hops varieties suitable for the Northeast.
Wild hops can be found in the region, but most are not native species, rather are feral European imports. They can be dug up and propagated to see what grows, and some are actually found to be named varieties. There is some potential for some “chance findings” which might yield the qualities brewers want and the disease resistance growers need.
While planning ahead for planting materials, the planting site requires preparation as well. Aside from the trellising infrastructure, hops will require irrigation, with access to water being “absolutely critical,” along with deep, well-drained soils. With water requirements of 3,000 to 4,000 gallons per acre needed consistently, drip irrigation is recommended. Hops require “a lot of water in July and August, as well as in spring,” Miller said.
“The depth to bedrock is very important,” Miller said. The further down the roots of the hops can grow, the better the access to water, and the more stable the plant. Greater bedrock depth also aids in securing trellis posts.
Heavy clay soils are poorly drained, and may require tile drainage. Sandy soils will need minerals added.
Hops require high organic matter, with mineral and fertility requirements the same as in vegetable production. Fifty-five lbs of nitrogen, 35 lbs of potassium and nine lbs of phosphorous are taken up by the plant in its first growing season. The ideal pH is 6.8, to reduce disease pressures and increase yields and quality of hops. Soils should be tested with multiple samples to insure fertility needs are being met. Fertilizer should be applied directly to hops rows, but not applied all at the same time. Fertigation via drip irrigation, on a weekly basis, is the most successful.
“I don’t know that we have all the answers,” regarding fertilization needs of the crop, Miller said.
Hop plants do not compete well with weeds. One year before planting, a crop to suppress weeds is recommended. Buckwheat, soy or clover are examples.
“If you don’t have a good site to grow hops…look around for a better site,” Miller said.
Without many new hops varieties suited to the region, and with an industry which has focused on growing standard varieties on a small number of large farms in western states, the re-introduction of hops to the Northeast requires growers to overcome many challenges.
From disease risks to labor concerns; high start-up costs; supply chain infrastructure development; a learning curve on hops cultivation, harvest, and storage needs; as well as quality, quantity and consistency needs; hops growers in the region do face an uphill battle, but one which could prove fruitful as the craft brewing industry develops, and a need for locally-grown ingredients continues to emerge.
Handley and Miller spoke at the Hops School, held during the Maine Agricultural Trades Show in January.
The Northeast Hops Alliance is involved in hops research, and the feasibility of re-establishing hops as a commercial crop in the region, and is a member-based organization serving as a resource for growers. For more information about the Northeast Hops Alliance, go to http://tinyurl.com/hfge6ml .