Hops: Florida's next cash crop?

- It’s barely 5 o’clock on a Thursday, and already a long line has formed at the bar inside First Magnitude Brewing. Some of the folks in line are holding empty mugs: refill time. Off to the side, 15 or so people have formed a semi-circle around a couple of men. One of them is John Denny, the co-founder and head brewer at First Magnitude. The other is Brian Pearson.

“This is a special night for me,” says Pearson to the group. He’s holding a snifter of coppery refreshment. Ditto everyone in the group. 

Pearson probably wouldn’t be at this brewery in Gainesville on this particular night in April -- holding this particular beer -- if not for a beer he had at a pub in England six years ago.

“Doom Bar,” he says, recalling with reverence in his voice the name of the ale. “Sharp’s Doom Bar. It was literally life-changing.”

At that point in time, his beer experience was like that of most Americans: lots of bland, yellow-ish pilsners and watery, amber-ish lagers.

“They just lack complexity. This beer was everything those weren’t: biscuity, full of rich flavors with a hop backbone. It was just everything I had never had before,” says Pearson.

When he returned to the states, he tried to order his precious Doom Bar online only to learn Sharp’s doesn’t export it. So, he decided he would try to make it -- or at least make something like it. He took up home brewing. Pretty soon, he was making good beer in five-gallon buckets. Six months into his hobby, he decided he want to make his good beer great. And he knew the hops were the key.

QUEST FOR FRESH HOPS

If barley is the heart of beer, then hops are the soul. The plant serves a few different purposes in the brewing process. Number one: it bitters the beer, providing a balance to the sweetness of the barley.

“If you had an un-hopped beer, it would be cloyingly sweet,” says Pearson. “So sweet that you wouldn’t want to drink it.”

In general, the more hops added to the beer, the more bitter it will taste.

Number two: hops impart flavor and aroma, which vary depending on the variety of hops used. And number three: hops are a preservative; they have high concentrations of acids that prevent the growth of bacteria.

Fun beer fact: The super popular IPA style – India Pale Ale – derives its name because when early British brewers needed to ship their product all the way to India, they would add extra hops to the beer after it fermented to keep bacteria from growing in the barrels during the long voyage. IPAs, as a result, have a distinctly bitter, hop-forward taste.

At the time, Pearson was using the hops that came in the brewing kits he bought at his local home brew shop.

“These hops were a little bit older,” says Pearson. “They weren’t as fresh and vibrant as what I would like.” 

He asked the brew shop owner if anyone around here grows hops.

“He told me, ‘You can’t grow hops in Florida’. I asked him if he had tried. He said, ‘No. You can’t grow hops in Florida,’” recalls Pearson. “I never told him what I do for a living.”

DR. PEARSON’S RESEARCH BEGINS

Dr. Brian Pearson is a horticulturist at the University of Florida’s Mid-Florida Research & Education Center in Apopka. One area of his expertise is researching specialty crops. Who better to answer the question, "can you grow hops in Florida?"

He started his quest in academia, but found very few research papers on producing the plants in Florida. The few he did find were not conclusive. So he decided to jump right into experimentation: he took out his wallet and ordered three kinds of hops from a plant breeder. He planted them at the UF facility in Apopka. And waited.

“One variety did poor, one did OK, and one did great,” says Pearson. “It did all the things people said it wouldn’t do: it did not succumb to disease, it did not get overrun by pests, and it produced cones of good quality.”

In 2014, Pearson helped one of his undergrad students with a thesis on hops production. They used a small internal grant to set up an experimental hops yard and grew the plants for two years. Again, some varieties did very well.  They used those findings to apply for and receive a highly competitive specialty crop grant from the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Their goal: to determine if Florida’s environment can produce enough hops to make it a viable alternative crop for growers in the Sunshine State.

SOME POSITIVE SIGNS

Pearson and his team are currently growing 20 cultivars, or varieties, of hops in their research hop yard in Apopka. Hops plants are climbers. The vine sprouts from the ground and then wraps itself around a string positioned above each plant. It will climb up the string until it reaches almost 20 feet tall. Some of the plants in Pearson’s yard are growing better than others. Neomexicanus is one variety that is doing well, which is just what Pearson expected.

“Neomexicanus was discovered growing wild in New Mexico, which is obviously well south of the ‘hop belt’ region of this country,” says Pearson, referring to the Pacific Northwest. “It seems to do well in warm climates.”

Chinook, Columbus, Comet, Southern Brewer, and Cascade are other varieties showing promise in the research yard. Pearson showed us a Cascade plant that is already producing cones. The cone is what matters. It’s actually the flower of the plant. A green, pineapple-shaped node roughly the size of a small grape, it’s the part that is harvested and used in brewing.

The fact that Cascade is off to a good start is a positive sign for Florida; Cascade is the workhorse of craft brewing, used in many popular styles of beer because of its floral, citrus character -- which seems appropriate: Florida, after all, is synonymous with citrus. And, just to bring this full circle, the decline of Florida’s citrus industry has led to greater interest in Pearson’s research.

After he and his undergrad partner published their study last year, his phone began ringing off the hook.

“We were getting, on average, five calls a day – and we’re still getting them,” says Pearson. “Citrus growers wanting to know where to get hops and when to plant them and what kind work best. I’m advising them to be patient and wait; it’s still too early to tell if hops would be a profitable investment for people who want to grow them on a large scale in Florida.”

LATITUDE CHALLENGED?

There’s a big reason Pearson is tempering expectations: The yields from his plants have been low so far. Last year, his Cascade produced only about one-quarter of the cones produced by its counterpart in the Pacific Northwest. He hopes that’s just because his plants are young. Hops don’t reach full production maturity until they are three to five years old, depending on the variety; Pearson’s plants are only a year old.

But another – and much more difficult to overcome – reason for the low yields could be Florida’s place on the globe.  Germany is the world’s largest hops producer, with the United States not far behind. Ninety-eight percent of U.S. hops are grown in three states: Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. Those three states have something in common with the hops-fertile Hallertau region of Germany: latitude. They are all located between the 45th and 50th parallels north. The length of daylight there appears to be ideal for optimal cone production.

“Studies show hops respond strongly when there’s 15 to 16 hours of daylight,” says Pearson.

Ironically, the Sunshine State does not sustain the sunshine long enough to reach that magic window. Central Florida is at 28 degrees latitude. Apopka maxes out at 14 hours of daylight in mid-June. Yakima, Washington, on the other hand, has at least 15 hours of daylight from mid-May to early August, giving hops plenty of time to flower.

Pearson says it’s too early to tell if the daylight factor is too large of a hurdle for Florida to overcome in hops production. He says synthesized light could be the answer to that challenge. 

“We put some of our hops under UV lights in a greenhouse and they did very well,” says Pearson. “We need to see if that could work on a large scale in a field.”

He says another possibility is the creation of a hops variety specifically tailored to perform well in Florida’s environment. A plant breeder at the university is currently working on that project.

BREWERS’ VESTED INTEREST

If Pearson and his team are successful in finding a variety or varieties of hops that perform well in Florida, growers should have no problem selling them. The craft beer industry has exploded in the Sunshine State, just as it has in much of the country. Florida is now home to more than 250 breweries. Denny and three of his friends founded First Magnitude in 2012. They produce four styles of beer year-round and rotate several seasonal varieties.

“More and more people have a great interest in local products,” says Denny. “I think that’s one reason craft breweries have become so popular.”

Ironically, most of the ingredients Florida brewers use to make beer don’t come from Florida. Denny gets most of his hops from the Pacific Northwest.

“We’re about as geographically far away from the traditional hop growing region of American as you can be!” laughs Denny. “We spend quite a bit of money to get the hops shipped here.”

He considers the production cost he could save if he had a local source of high-quality hops. Which is why he is working with the University of Florida, providing Pearson’s team with analysis of their hops’ performance in brewing. And he’s not alone: several brewers in the Tampa Bay area have actually invested money in the university’s research.

TAMPA BAY HOPS

Pearson isn’t the only UF researcher trying to find the perfect hops plant for the state. At the Gulf Coast Research and Education Center in Wimauma, Dr. Zhanao Deng is leading a parallel study of 14 varieties. It began at the same time as Pearson’s work and has produced similar results: Cascade is the best performer -- but it’s still too early to tell if the plants could produce enough cones to be economically viable in Florida.

Dr. Deng’s program has a strong ally in Simon Bollin with Hillsborough County’s Economic Development department. Three years ago, seeing the potential demand for locally grown hops, Bollin reached out to several breweries in the Tampa Bay region and gauged their interest in supporting research. 3 Daughters Brewing in  St. Pete, Cigar City in Tampa, and Coppertail Brewing in Tampa jumped on board, kicking in funding to help Dr. Deng set up his hops research yard.

The breweries have also supplied feedback on the quality of Deng’s hops, including analysis of their acids and oils and their performance in brewing. 3 Daughters brewed a blonde ale and dry hopped it with hops grown by Deng’s team.

“Incredibly, incredibly good,” wrote one beer blogger. “The hops give the beer a slightly floral quality to the taste.”

While Cigar City has not produced a commercial beer with local hops, a representative tells FOX 13 the brewery is a huge supporter of the movement and hopes to one day soon incorporate locally grown hops into their beers.

There are also breweries dabbling in local hops outside of the UF research effort. Motorworks Brewing in Bradenton last year brewed a beer with Cascade from a small, organic farm in Riverview. Nature Coast Brewing in Crystal River brewed a small batch with hops grown on a farm in Dunnellon.

FRESH FROM FLORIDA

On a picture-perfect spring evening in April, Dr. Pearson and some of his undergrad hops researchers joined Denny at First Magnitude for a little celebration. Also there was Dr. Jack Payne, senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources at UF. As Pearson raised his snifter for a toast, he harkened back to the beginning of his research project.

“As we planted those hops, we remarked ‘How cool would it be if one day in the future we could go to a bar and order a Florida-hopped beer?” says Pearson. “Well, here we are tonight, enjoying that beer!”

Cheers erupted. The toast commemorated First Magnitude’s release of a beer named Apopka Hop Pale Ale, a small batch brewed with four pounds of hops harvested by Pearson’s team at the Apopka research facility. 

“They were very good, very flavorful,” said Denny of the hops. "We were very pleased with the results. It has kind of a unique, spicy, almost fruity quality to it.”

His customers seemed to agree. The brewery quickly sold out of the 120 bottles and two small kegs it made for the limited release.  And while it was not the first commercial beer brewed with hops grown in this state, it was the first to receive the “Fresh From Florida” label, a marketing effort by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

“We’ve been watching this hops research for quite a while,” says Chris Denmark of FDACS. “Anytime we can get a new crop in Florida and diversify it, we’re very excited about where this could go.” 

Pearson believes more Florida-hopped beers are inevitable. But only time will tell if those beers have the legs to become a cash crop for Florida’s farmers.

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