Hops research continues with on-farm trials testing viability in North Carolina

by | Feb 15, 2023

Two on-farm trials have helped agricultural researchers realize the real-world challenges of growing hops in North Carolina. The trials were essentially field experiments that took place during the 2021 and 2022 growing seasons. They were part of ongoing research into developing a variety of hops that will produce good yields and good quality hops for use in North Carolina’s craft brewing industry.

Principal researcher Jeanine Davis, Ph.D., explained more about her hopes and dreams of finding a high-quality variety of hops in a previous post on the NCDA&CS “In the Field” blog. (That blog post shared photos and videos of the hops just before the growing season began in 2022. The photos and videos in this post show the hops at harvest time in September 2022.) Her research depends on grants to pay for manpower, materials and other expenses. Some of her most recent funding came from the NCDA&CS New and Emerging Crops Program. That funding helped expand the research to two farms.  Previously, the experimental growth had only been conducted on plots at the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research Station in Mills River, just outside Asheville.

On-farm plots in Mocksville (southwest of Winston-Salem) and Pittsboro (south of Chapel Hill) helped plant breeder Luping Qu, Ph.D see how his top-choice hops varieties fared outside of his watchful eye. He’d previously spent more than five years developing hops that would produce higher yields in North Carolina while still having good qualities for beer. Traditional varieties used in beer are productive in more northern areas, but they didn’t do well in North Carolina. That was his challenge. By the summer of 2021, his breeding efforts brought him to two promising selections that got tested on the farms.

“They had problems for the last two years. The plants did not perform as we were expecting them to,” Qu said shortly after the harvest in September 2022. “The first year because of a weed problem at one farm, and the other had some dry conditions. This year the Mocksville location had a problem with downy mildew – a pretty damaging disease. They got the disease early in the season, in May, so the plant did not perform well. In Pittsboro, somehow we lost a lot of plants over the winter, and also early in the year we had a trellis problem.”

Growing hops well depends on a good trellis system that allows the plants to grow up off the ground. Qu said the trellis in Pittsboro was shored up a few times, but in late July is still wasn’t quite right. The trellis was still down, which was a major obstacle to productive growth.

“It’s different from tomatoes,” Qu said. “The tomatoes you put in the ground, and everybody knows how to cultivate them. Hops are different. With the pruning, the training is pretty critical. You need to continue to watch the plants.”

That’s a level of attention Qu realizes North Carolina farmers may not be used to giving their field crops. So he’s realized more training and education may be in order for any farmers who adopt hops growing.

“So I hope next year I’ll push them more, and I’ll be there perhaps more times to watch how they do it, or I may need to do it myself sometimes,” Qu said in reference to pruning and guiding hops vines on the trellises.  “Hops is a crop you need to continue watering to maintain the field throughout the season also.”

The research team used a hops harvester for much of the hops collection.

Despite the challenges, Qu feels the selected varieties he’s bred still have promise in North Carolina. He was pleased with the overall quality of the hops that were harvested, and the plots that he oversaw on the research station had good yields. He and Davis, with the help of research assistants, provided Sierra Nevada and a smaller brewery with hops from the harvest. They’ve been happy with the quality overall. It’s just a matter of producing a lot of hops with high quality that will make them a viable option for North Carolina farmers to grow for the state’s breweries.

The research is continuing with more funding from the Specialty Crops Block Grant. Qu and Davis will continue with on-farm trials, testing a total of five hops varieties. They’ll keep track of yield and continue providing those yields for breweries to make test beers. They hope that they’ll be ready to release a few varieties to nurseries within the next couple of years, which would make them available to farmers interested in growing them as a business venture. Davis sees a possible model for success would involve breweries and farmers entering into contracts in which the farmer agrees to grow a certain amount of hops for the breweries. The breweries could then make beer with hops sourced from North Carolina farms – something that’s almost unheard of currently.