(Photo courtesy University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Science Extension)

Dr. Brian Pearson is an Assistant Professor of Landscape, Ornamental, and Protected Crop Management at the University of Florida, but his unofficial title is “The Florida Hop Guy.” Pearson is a homebrewer who one day asked his homebrew shop owner if he had any local hops. When told they cannot grow in the state, Pearson asked a fundamental question: Why not?

“I am a horticulturist and I wanted to know why these plants could not grow,” says Pearson. “I could not get an answer. Then I looked into journals and I was surprised by the unbelievable lack of scientific evidence on hops.”

So, like any scientist, Pearson decided to experiment: in 2012, he bought a few hop plants to augment his homebrewing. A few plants turned into a few more and word began getting out of his experimenting with Florida’s hop-growing potential.

A Modest Proposal

In January of 2015, a group of business and agricultural professionals from Hillsborough County, along with representatives from Cigar City Brewing in Tampa, asked the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) to test the possibility of hop growth in the Sunshine State. Two other breweries, Coppertail Brewing and Crooked Can Brewing, along with several private trusts and a $158,000 grant from the Florida Department of Agriculture, combined to bring this experiment to fruition. If there ever was a dream team to make Florida-grown hops a reality, the team at UF/IFAS qualifies.

Dr. Zhanao Deng, Professor of Ornamental Plant Breeding and Genetics. (Photo courtesy University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Science Extension)

In 1950 this organization was charged with bringing blueberries to Florida. When told it was impossible, this group worked on the project and introduced the first cultivars to the state.  Fast forward to 2014 and the USDA reported that Florida grew over 16,000 pounds of blueberries on 4,300 acres of land. Florida has earned a consistent spot in the top 10, usually top five, blueberry growing states in the U.S. The breeding program at UF accounts for 90 percent of all commercial blueberry plants in Florida.

“This is our goal. Hopefully we will achieve the level of success as has been seen in blueberries,” says Dr. Zhanao Deng, Professor of Ornamental Plant Breeding and Genetics.  This group has never shied from an agricultural challenge, even though they admit hops are unlike anything else they have worked with.

Overcoming Old Wisdom and New Problems

Traditionally, hops are grown in the “Hop Belt” between the 35th and 55th parallels of both hemispheres. In the United States, the hop-producing powerhouses are Washington, Oregon and Idaho. These three states accounted for 96.7 percent of America’s hops in 2015. Hops grow well in these regions because of their long days, hot summers and cold winters. As Kevin Riel of Double R Hop Farm of Harrah, Washington, says, “the hop plant likes to have its feet wet and its head dry.” As beer consumption expands, so does interest in hop farming.

Michigan State University and North Carolina State University have both taken up hop growing experiments to test the feasibility of growing hops, and with positive results. N.C. State hop farmers have even had success cultivating historic Canadian Red Vine hops. Hop farming has diffused on an experimental basis to other regions of the U.S., but the Pacific Northwest’s climate makes that region the hop king.

Dr. Shinsuke Agehara, plant physiologist and Professor of Horticultural Science associated with UF/IFAS agrees that “day length will be a major limiting factor.” Hops need long days for ideal growth.

“The general recommendation for day length to achieve high yields is 15 hours,” he says. “Our longest day length [in Florida] is about 13 hours and 54 minutes in late June.” While that may not seem like much, hop plants can grow up to one foot in a day, and the extra hour of daylight can have a big impact.

In addition to climate, Florida also has different bugs than the northern latitudes. All of the literature available had suggestions for pests in traditional hop-growing regions, which was of little help in a state hundreds of miles away from the reference point. That data only concerned known hop predators; Florida is a hotbed for exotic and invasive species, like the Sri Lankan weevil, which is not native to Florida, but loves to dine on hop plants. Pearson was fortunate enough to have an entomologist on site. “Every bug we found would be taken right to him.” Bugs were then analyzed by the university and countermeasures recommended.  

Promising Results Are Growing

The team constructed traditional hop farms in two Florida locations. Drs. Agehara and Deng “are testing 13 hop varieties, three planting densities, and two fertilization levels” at their location in west central Florida. Dr. Pearson is testing more varieties at the UF/IFAS Extension in east central Florida and has been for the last three years. The setup includes a trellis system, drip irrigation, drip-emitted fertilizers, strings, pest and disease scouting, and pesticide applications where necessary. So far Floridian hops are relatively young, but Dr. Deng says “based on reports from North Carolina, we expect some hop varieties such as Cascade may do better in Florida than others.” Pearson reports success and uniformity growing Cascade and Chinook hops. “I kind of expected that,” says Pearson. “These are hops that have been cultivated and bred. What was unique was our success with Neo Mexicanus hops.”

Neo Mexicanus hops are perfectly suited for growth in the southeastern United States. They were found growing in the wild in New Mexico, and Pearson has seen them thrive in the dry Floridian soil.

(Photo courtesy University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Science Extension)

Pearson then sent the hops from his facility for analysis. Knowing that each hop was growing differently, Pearson wanted quantitative data on the hops that would grow. “We cannot grow as many cultivars, but we were excited about the oil content of Florida hops,” says Pearson. The results were pretty standard—Florida’s hops tested similarly in compounds, until the essential oils. The essential oils came back with double the concentration of those hops grown in Yakima. While research is ongoing, this could be the reality of Florida hops.

Gaining Traction

While the initial results are encouraging, Pearson says Florida is a long way from being the new Yakima. For one thing, the yield of Florida hop plant has been small as compared to Yakima or even North Carolina. Pearson compares the harvests: “In Yakima, they traditionally harvest about eight pounds of hops per plant. In North Carolina, they get two to three. In Florida, we have been getting one pound per plant.” Pearson admits that he only had room to let UF hop plants grow to 13 feet and the plants like to stop growing around 18 feet.

Another factor for farmers to consider is the processing of hops. Traditionally, hop flowers are harvested, kilned and pelletized for storage and ease of use. This expense is usually incurred by the farmers, and costs can run between $10,000-$30,000 for a hop pelletizer.

(Photo courtesy University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Science Extension)

There is a potential advantage to Florida-grown hops, though. As occurs with Florida blueberries, hops grown in the state could enjoy one of the earliest harvests in the country. “[T]iming of harvest will play a role,” says Deng. “One of the reasons blueberries could be so successful is because we can harvest blueberries earlier than any other areas so we can benefit [from] higher market prices. … This is good from the management perspective, as plants do not need to go through our hot and humid summer before harvest.” If Florida could offer the first harvest of the season, then fresh hop season could begin before the traditional August harvest, and as an added bonus, Florida brewers could wet-hop their IPAs without cross-country shipping. “To achieve that,” posits Deng, “we need to select or develop suitable varieties and optimize management practices.”

Another potential advantage comes from the state of Florida’s citrus industry—it is currently being decimated by citrus greening and farmers are looking for a replacement cash crop. Pearson admits, “I field several phone calls each day from farmers looking for a crop to replace their greened citrus trees. They want to plant five acres of hops. I tell them to wait. Step into it slowly.” Floridian farmers are excited by the potential income from hop farming.

A final advantage of Florida hops would come at the time of hop harvests. Where many regions of the country have cold winters that make the hop plants grow dormant, Florida does not. So the same factors that draw snowbirds and retirees could be a boon to hop growers: Pearson says that he was able to harvest his hop plants three times in a year.

(Photo courtesy University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Science Extension)

The future is brilliant for Florida hops. Pearson says that if he can “go into breeding and selection, then we can start working with all varieties of hops.” Farmers call him with increasing excitement about the idea of growing hops. But while Pearson loves his work, helping others, and sharing agricultural success stories, he says that he would just love to travel to a another state and order a beer made with Florida hops after being told such a feat was impossible.

“It is now a fact,” Pearson says. “Hops can be grown in Florida. It’s a published fact. Now it’s a matter of a lot of follow-up questions.”

Florida Hop Firsts

The first brewery to claim that they have brewed with Florida hops? That honor goes to Backyard Winery and Microbrewery. The brewery is a small space in Wildwood, Florida, attached to a farm. The brewery grows all of its hops onsite and uses them in several house beers.  The rural brewery only serves its beer onsite in its tasting room, so ordering a pint of Florida terroir means a trip to the country—or at least it used to.

On June 8, Motorworks Brewing of Bradenton claimed the title of the first commercial beer brewed with Florida hops that is intended for distribution. According to the brewery, the “hops were hand-harvested in the Tampa Bay area on independent grower Matt Harper’s farm in Riverview, locally-grown, pesticide-free Cascade hops star in their new American Pale Ale.” The 3.5 barrel (roughly 108 gallon) batch of pale ale was brewed with three pounds of fresh hops harvested from 72 plants. The brewery staff went to Harper’s Florida Urban Organics farm in Riverview, Florida.  “The hops were from bine to brew in less than 18 hours,” says Motorworks Marketing Director Barry Elwonger. The difference?  “Knockout (cleaning out brewing vessels) took longer than a typical batch.”

Motorworks plans to distribute the beer to select bars and restaurants and use the beer to discuss Florida’s potential to grow hops.

Mark DeNote is a travelling beer writer based in Florida.