New Florida-grown hops could satiate the thirsty craft brew industry as well as offset citrus farmers’ low yields.
Three researchers at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences received a $158,000 grant from the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to test 40 hop varieties.
Hops are the flowers of the hop plant, Humulus lupulus. They are brewed to give beer a citric, bitter flavor and aroma.
Brian Pearson, Zhanao Deng and Shinsuke Agehara are working on finding the best hop varieties for Florida’s climate, so that they can share the information with farmers and start growing hops.
According to Pearson, at least three distinct markets stand to benefit from this research: brewers, producers, including citrus farmers, and consumers.
Florida-grown hops are a “brand new concept,” said Aaron Kahn, the head brewer at Alligator Brew.
Typically, hops are shipped in from the Pacific Northwest in the form of dried pellets, which will affect the aroma and flavor of the beer, said Kahn.
Florida’s heat, local pests and location close to the equator make it difficult to grow hops.
“Hops prefer to grow between 35 and 55 degrees north and south latitude,” said Pearson.
For reference, the Mid-Florida Research and Education Center in Apopka where Pearson and his colleagues are conducting their research sits at 29 degrees latitude. What that means, Pearson explained, is that during the summer Florida receives around two fewer hours of sunlight than the Pacific Northwest, which affects hop growth.
But if the researchers find a hop that thrives in Florida, there is potential for brewers to craft new, local-only beers.
“Hops pick up a flavor and an aroma unique to where they’re grown, like grapes — a terroir,” said Pearson.
Perhaps more exciting given the popularity of India Pale Ales (IPAs), which require a lot of hops to produce, is the possibility of wet-hop beers.
Wet hops are hops that are not processed or dried. Florida-grown hops would require minimal transportation, making it easier for brewers to produce wet-hopped beers.
“The crème de la crème of beers is a wet-hopped beer,” said Pearson.
This research has even more appeal, perhaps, for the citrus farmers who are interested in growing hops to diversify their crops in the face of lagging citrus production.
In 2004 and 2005, a series of hurricanes decimated production across the Indian River citrus belt, and citrus production levels have yet to return to pre-hurricane levels. Citrus canker and citrus greening have forced farmers to abandon acres of infected trees.
Marty Werts is a citrus farmer who previously owned an organic citrus grove in Melrose, about 20 miles northeast of Gainesville.
“Citrus farming is a wonderful thing to do, [but] unless you are a really huge grower, you’re really dependent on one crop a year,” said Werts.
Werts knows the difficulties of growing citrus and supports the idea of cultivating new crops, yet there’s something bittersweet about the idea of people who have spent their entire lives growing citrus now growing hops.
“[Citrus] is the state crop, if you will,” said Werts. “We’ve always been real proud to say we’re citrus farmers.”
“If there’s a way you can partner up and farm something else along with citrus, I just think you’re better served and the community’s better served, of course, if you’re producing different products people can use. I think it’s a good idea.”