Every summer, locals and tourists alike descend into the North Fork Valley in Black Mountain, North Carolina, for one of Van Burnette’s tours around the farm his family has worked for almost 170 years. They learn about the various herbs grown there, pluck blueberries from bushes, and watch blaze-orange Monarch butterflies flit about the farm’s butterfly house.
But there’s one tour that’s extra special. Typically held in the middle of July is the farm’s annual hop harvest, in which Burnette guides guests through his small hop yard. He explains the differences between the hops and how they’re grown, and then—under the 18-foot tall bines—he and his guests enjoy a beer brewed with the farm’s hops.
Burnette primarily supplies hops to breweries looking to brew wet-hop beers, which require undried hops thrown into the beer mere hours after they are picked. Getting the hops to a brewery in such a short time isn’t a problem for Burnette: Asheville is about half an hour away, and two other breweries—Pisgah Brewing and Lookout Brewing—are just miles down the road. Lookout Brewing in particular has used lots of Burnette’s hops since the brewery opened in Black Mountain in 2013.
Burnette is a seventh-generation farmer. Once upon a time, his family grew another crop used by local alcohol makers: corn. Burnette transitioned into hops and blueberries in 2009, thanks to a grant from the N.C. Tobacco Trust Fund Commission.
“I’m not so sure they had hops in mind when they did that, but I was lucky enough to get the grant,” said Burnette. “I was able to experiment with a little less anxiety about it. I think it’s helped a lot of farmers since.”
Today, more than 80 small hop farms call North Carolina home, though Burnette was one of the first. But as he prepares to harvest this year’s crop of Nugget, Chinook and Cascade hops, Burnette is unsure if he’ll be doing the same next year.
That’s because this year, he found downy mildew on his Nugget and Chinook bines. The disease can be devastating to hop farmers.
“It’s deadly to the plant,” said Burnette. “It’s very expensive to eradicate, and really you have to spray them all the time. Some of them you can’t even go into the hop yard for several days.”
Burnette does not want to introduce chemicals into his hop yard, and is unsure whether he will continue growing hops. The Cascade hops have proven resistant so far, and as such he may focus his efforts on that single variety.
The mildew wasn’t exactly a surprise to Burnette, who is well aware of the challenges that plague anyone brazen enough to grow hops in the state. The biggest problem isn’t altitude, says the mountain farmer—it’s latitude.
Latitude determines day length, and hops crave daylight. While they typically grow between 35-55 degrees latitude, they thrive right in the middle of that range in places like Washington, Oregon, England and Germany.
Located along the 35th parallel north, North Carolina just barely makes the cut. With less daylight than farmers in the Pacific Northwest, farmers in North Carolina usually do not yield as many pounds of hops per plant, and they are often forced to harvest earlier. For example, Burnette will harvest in July, but some of the large hop farms in Washington could harvest as late as September. And while he’s doing well to get 2-2.5 pounds of hops per plant, his peers in the Pacific Northwest could double that.
This is why Burnette never expanded his hop yard over the years. He knew he would never be able to achieve enough production to make the hop yard as profitable as he would like.
Despite the challenges, some are more optimistic. While Burnette’s hop yard is in limbo, Dan Gridley is looking to grow his. Gridley is the founder of Farm Boy Farms, located in Pittsboro.
The half-acre hop yard at Farm Boy Farms is home to 25-30 different varieties. Gridley hopes to grow the hop yard to three acres within the next five years.
“We can’t grow enough hops,” said Gridley. “We can go and order 10,000 hop rhizomes, but what we’re using is our already healthy North Carolina hop plants. We want to grow fast, but we’re growing slow to grow fast.”
But hops are just one aspect of Gridley’s farm, which spans 88 acres in total (though not all of it farmable). Burnette has blueberries and butterflies; Gridley has grain. Forty acres of grain, to be specific.
Brewer’s barley can generally be divided into two types: two-row and six-row. The names of these grains refer to the rows of kernels on the head of the barley.
When Gridley started the farm in 2010, he was growing both two-row and six-row. He soon noticed the two-row yielded a more consistently plump grain when compared with the six-row. About a quarter of the six-row yield wasn’t suitable for brewing, and thus went to feed cattle.
Gridley stopped growing the six-row and focused on the two-row, which comprises the bulk of the grain grown at Farm Boy Farms. He grows two types of two-row known as Charles and Endeavor, both recommended by the American Malting Barley Association. He also grows rye and sorghum, the latter used by Raleigh’s Crank Arm Brewing to produce a gluten-reduced beer. Gridley works with farmers in Duplin and Wayne counties for additional volumes of two-row barley and wheat.
Farm Boy Farms is unique in that they grow the grain and malt it as well. The grain moves from the farm’s 10 silos (up from just four a month ago) and through the malting process, which consists of soaking the grain to germinate it before kiln-drying it, cleaning it and packaging it.
Farm Boy Farms is not the only malt house in the state. Asheville’s Riverbend Malt House opened in 2011 and, like Farm Boy Farms, has been growing ever since. Just last year it added several new pieces of equipment as part of an expansion that will better allow it to meet demand for grains, which include three different versions of six-row barley (Heritage malt, Pale malt and Pilsner malt), plus Appalachian White wheat malt and Carolina Rye.
Brewers large and small have used Riverbend’s malt, from national players like New Belgium and Sierra Nevada to smaller, homegrown outfits like Fonta Flora Brewery in Morganton or Fullsteam Brewery in Durham.
Research is currently underway to see how viable barley growing is in North Carolina. David Marshall is a breeder and researcher with the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service. In an attempt to develop high-yielding varieties of wheat, barley, oats and triticale, Marshall conducts field testing, selection and grain evaluations at nine different locations across the state.
On the hops side, there is Jeanine Davis. Davis is an associate professor and extension specialist in N.C. State University’s department of horticultural science. She and her team are in the fifth year of a hops variety trial at the university’s Mountain Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Center in Mills River, not far from the new Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. They are growing a dozen different varieties of hops to see which grow best in Western North Carolina.
The data gleaned from these endeavors is key for the future of both industries, said Gridley. Farmers will need to know more than which varieties grow best. They will need to relay additional information to brewers, such as the alpha acids in their hops or the diastatic power of their grains.
Gridley notes there are discernible differences between hops grown in North Carolina and those grow in the Pacific Northwest, or grain grown in the state when compared with grain grown in the Midwest.
“If you know your data, you can make your decisions,” he said. “The breweries know there will be differences. But knowing the data points is key to communication.”