20 Questions: Richard Smith from Florida Hops
The conventional wisdom says that hops are grown in northern climates. We often associate places like Germany, England and Czech Republic in Europe. Washington state and Oregon in the United States. In the Southern Hemisphere, you might come up with New Zealand, Australia and maybe South Africa.
One of the things I found very quickly when starting on this project, is that there are commercial hops farms all over the place. Search online and you can find hop farms in Russia, China, Argentina, Brazil and Canada.
I don't know why we see plenty of hops from Washington but I've yet to see hops grown in British Columbia in my local homebrew store. Nearly every state has a hop farm (haven't been able to locate one in Hawaii. If you know about one there, let me know!). A little digging will tell you that the center of U.S. hop production used to be New York state before outbreaks of downy and powdery mildew drove production westward. Prohibition finally toppled the industry in the first half of the 20th century (Baur, 2019).
Production in New York is now increasing with research programs at Cornell University and beyond helping farmers tackle the mildew challenge. Montana, Wisconsin, Iowa and even Nebraska are seeing increased acreage (Hop Growers of America, 2019). There is interest in the mountain states as the craft beer industry adds almost $2 billion to the Colorado economy (Colorado Brewers Guild, 2016) and Neomexicana hops (Great Lakes Hops, 2019) hint at the possibilities for hops much further south than conventionally thought of.
There are now state or university funded programs in Florida, North Carolina, Tennessee and Arizona.
Yep, hops from the sunshine belt.
Richard Smith of Florida Hops did graduate research on hops at the University of Florida. One of his goals in to breed a hop suited to the unique climate that is Florida. In the meantime, he works as a consultant to hop farms, runs a hop nursery to sell certified disease-free hops plants to farmers and is a tireless champion of hops in Florida.
Due in part to his efforts, there are now a number of fresh hop beers produced within hours of harvest in the Sunshine State.
I wanted to know more about what was going on, and Rich agreed to play 20 questions. Actually, it was close to 30 questions. Rich is awesome.
How long have hops been grown commercially in Florida?
There is no record of hop production in Florida prior to 2015. So, this is a relatively new market for us.
Are there native hop varieties?
There are no native hop varieties in Florida. The benefit of that is we don’t get the uncontrolled spread of downy and powdery mildews. The drawback is we don’t get access to wild genetics adapted to Florida.
Which varieties do well?
There are over 300 different varieties of hops and new ones are introduced each year. We’ve trialed maybe 40 different varieties and have found Cascade, Comet, Chinook, Columbus, Sorachi Ace, and Nugget amongst others seem to have positive production potential.
I see on your website that there are research projects developing hop varieties better suited to Florida. What can you tell us about those?
That work is in its early stages. We’ve made a few crosses and we’ve germinated seedlings. Now, we’re evaluating them for traits like vigor and cone development. We’re hoping to have a variety chosen and tested with Florida breweries in 2020.
Have any varieties been released?
No varieties have yet to be released. Breeding a new variety is typically a 5 – 8 year process. We’re hoping that with the use of technology such as DNA sequencing and genetic markers, we’ll be able to shorten the time to develop a new hop variety.
When do you typically harvest hops in Florida?
Currently, hops in Florida are harvested twice a year. We start production in Spring, usually early to mid-March, and harvest, much earlier than everyone else, in late June/early July. We begin again in late Fall and complete the second harvest in Winter. Having two harvests a year is an entirely new concept for global hop production.
Have you noticed differences in the varieties you grow in Florida to the same varieties grown elsewhere?
Absolutely. Hops, like grapes, take on the qualities of their environment. This phenomenon is known as terroir. Hops grown in the Pacific Northwest will have a different biochemical profile than hops grown here in Florida, making our production different and unique. One research paper showed that hops in Florida held higher concentrations of essential oils (aromatic compounds) than what is listed for those tested varieties.
Other than being able to source all local ingredients for a beer, are there advantages to growing hops in Florida?
We can’t source all ingredients for craft beer just yet. Grains are still a challenge, even though we have demonstrated an ability to produce them. In 2018, we introduced the First All Florida Ingredient Beer to the Florida Brewers Guild. Spectacular moment sharing a 9.8% juicy Saison. But as far as hops go, growing them here creates an opportunity to educate the public on crop they knew so little about.
How do hops deal with hurricanes?
Wind damage from hurricanes is a problem. But we do our best to grow outside of hurricane season. But Hurricane HopsTM are great in a brew too! Most of the concern is for the structure of the hopyard. We have to make sure poles and wires are properly secured.
Do you have problems with humidity or pests that growers in more traditional areas don't?
The humidity in Florida isn’t like most places when you think of humid environments. Generally, our humidity is dissipated by mid-morning and we rarely have any lingering low hanging clouds. Unlike production environments in North Carolina, Virginia, or Michigan, which often have fogs into mid-afternoon, humidity hasn’t shown to be a problem for production. The concerns for humidity lies in its ability to proliferate diseases like Downy Mildew. We have yet to see the disease here in Florida, but we are keeping a keen eye out for it.
Introducing a new crop gives us a great opportunity to study the pests that feed upon them. As I mentioned before, Downy and Powdery Mildews have yet to show up in our production environments. But mites, aphids, weevils, nematodes, and a host of other pests have kept us on our toes as we find ways to deal with them. However, these are not pest we are not familiar to, and control of them hasn’t show to be incredibly difficult.
Are there pests that hop farms in traditional growing areas have problems with that you don't?
I would say no, but there’s time to find out. I would also say that we don’t have pests traditional growing areas deal with such as Downy and Powdery Mildew, killers of hop plants. We have set in place a culture that doesn’t source plant material outside of the state. Typically, bringing in any material outside of Florida will increase the likelihood of transporting a disease we do not want.
Are there other challenges for Florida hop growers?
The most significant challenge to production of hops in Florida is our lighting. Though we are known as the Sunshine State, we don’t produce enough light hours for hops to put on all the vegetative growth they need to yield a good harvest. So, we manipulate the plants’ environment with supplemental lighting through either extension or night time interruption. These methods trick the plant into thinking either the days are longer or the nights are shorter, keeping the plant in vegetative mode in order to get the growth we need for sidearm production and to prevent early flowering. Lighting has made an incredible impact to our production environments and has increased yields nearly 8-fold putting our efforts on the scale of North Carolina and Virginia production capabilities. Lights also help us do this twice a year. We have production worthy temperatures through most of the year, but as winter approaches, our day light hours can get as low as 8 or 9 per day. Using lighting changes everything we know about hop production.
Do you know how many acres are under commercial cultivation? Or what the 2018 harvest was?
Hop production in Florida is the wild wild west. No one really knows how many acres are under production. We estimate 25 to 40 acres and very few of them are using photoperiod manipulation. As a consultant, we work with about 5 acres of production and average about 2,000 pounds of wet hops per harvest. We’re expecting those numbers to increase as more interest grows into hop production.
How have brewers reacted to local hops?
They’ve been excited to use a locally grown ingredient. And the fact that it’s been nonexistent here so long and available now is satisfying. They are especially interested in biochemical compounds that create different flavors and aromas.
Has the quality of Florida hops been relatively consistent?
2018 was really the first of commercial production. The challenge is delivering a consistent product and we’re making sure our production standards are up to par in order to do so. But testing the crop each harvest gives us an idea of how this ingredient will perform in locally produced beers.
How is the quality compared to what comes from more traditional hop growing areas?
We’ve been able match or exceed profiles of similar hop varieties, though there is still more work needed to keep consistency high.
How big do you see the Florida hop growing industry growing?
As we learn more about this plant in our environment the picture of what hops in Florida could be becomes vivid. There is great potential for hops to be a staple in Florida agriculture.
What are the biggest challenges ahead?
Processing. It typically takes about $25 to $30k/acre to build a hopyard. Add the processing equipment to that and we’re looking at over $100,000. So, we’re working to acquire processing equipment to share amongst growers and move this small but growing industry beyond the limited handpicked farms.
I know that hop rhizomes are typically done on a pre-order basis- when do these usually ship out?
We sell live rooted plants, no rhizomes. Rhizomes have the ability to transfer pests and disease. It is really important to us to avoid any introduction of issues into the early stages of hop production.
How is starting with live rooted plants different than starting with a rhizome?
Our plants are produced from tissue culture, which is tested to be disease and virus free. There is no worry of transferring diseases to new hopyards. They come in field ready grade fully rooted with a developed crown.
How is starting with live rooted plants different than starting with a rhizome?
If a home brewer wanted to get their garden ready for hop plants, what would they need to do?
Simply visit us at www.floridahopx.com. Most orders are shipped for free! And we cannot ship to OR, WA, ID.
How soon can a hobbyist expect to get a harvest?
Hops can yield a harvest in their first year. The great thing is that as the plants mature, yield increases!
Is there an easy test to estimate the alpha acids on home grown hops?
We use laboratory testing for our hops. We also offer this service to home growers who are interested in knowing their AA%.
When do you send out the rooted hop plants?
We send out hop plants year-round!
How did you get into growing hops?
I started as a student at the University of Florida where I wrote my thesis on hop production, the first research on the subject in Florida. I then became a biological scientist with the university where I continued conducting hop research.
What made you decide to start a nursery in Florida?
I saw the issue of importing plant material and wanted to ensure growers has a source that they could depend on that would have clean plants and experience growing hops in Florida.
Do you have a favorite variety? If so, what makes it special?
Comet is my favorite hop. It’s a great grower, heavy yielder, and beautiful aromatics. Everything a grower needs and all that a brewer wants. It’s great.
Do you still get a chance to brew? What styles do you like to brew?
I have brewed several batches, but I’m a much better grower than I am a brewer!
Any recommendations for homebrewers looking to design recipes to showcase local/Florida hops?
Florida grown hops can fit into any style of beer and using them will give a homebrewer the experience of using fresh and dried whole cone hops in their brew. You’ll have to use more whole cones than pellets typically at a ratio of 4 or 5:1. And in doing so, you’ll create such spectacular and unique beers that deliver a depth and character that you don’t normally experience.
Baur, J. (2019, 2 9). CraftBeer.com. Retrieved from Craft Beer: https://www.craftbeer.com/craft-beer-muses/new-york-state-americas-former-hop-capital
Colorado Brewers Guild. (2016). Craft Brewers Industry Overview and Economic Impact 2014 and 2015. Leeds School of Business, Business Research Division. Boulder, Colorado: University of Colorado Boulder. Retrieved 2 9, 2019, from https://coloradobeer.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/Colorado-Brewers-Guild-Economic-Impact-Study-Final-Report-061416-1.pdf
Great Lakes Hops. (2019, 2 9). Neo1 - Neomexicana. Retrieved from Great Lakes Hops: https://www.greatlakeshops.com/store/p86/Neo1Neomexicana.html
Hop Growers of America. (2019). 2018 Statistical Report. Yakima, WA: USA Hops. Retrieved February 9, 2019, from https://www.usahops.org/img/blog_pdf/168.pdf
University of Florida hop research: http://explore.research.ufl.edu/uf-to-hop-into-hops-varieties-for-microbreweries.html
North Carolina State hops research: https://newcropsorganics.ces.ncsu.edu/specialty-crops/nc-hops/
University of Tennessee hops research: https://agfax.com/2017/12/28/hops-research-project-launched-by-university-of-tennessee/
University of Arizona research facilities: http://ceac.arizona.edu/facilities
Want to read more about Florida hops? Check out some of Rich’s articles here: https://www.growingproduce.com/author/richard-m-smith/