Hop-along Saturday

Rich Orris
Rich Orris

These weekend, visitors came out for not one, but two whole festivals dedicated to the art of growing hops.

Thousands of lime green cones stretched along steel cables at Echoview Farm in Weaverville and the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Center in Mills River on Saturday. Each tiny cone is a hop, a key component in beer production and a small miracle. Our climate is more challenging than hop-friendly weather in the Pacific Northwest and many European countries. Western North Carolina’s afternoon thunderstorms are a ways away from the dry climate that hops prefer.

Why all the interest in growing such an unpredictable crop? Van Burnette, a long time hops grower and owner of Hop’n Blueberry Farm, says the answer is simple. “It’s all about beer,” Burnette says. “End of story. Everybody is looking for a niche market and a lot of young farmers want to try something new.”

Growers and enthusiasts alike flocked to Echoview Farm over the weekend, to tour the yards, sample beer and listen to bluegrass. Hops are proving to be an integral part of Asheville and WNC’s thriving beer culture.

Many local residents are trying their hand at growing them, both for home brew and commercial production. Phillip Davis, Parker Davis and John Davis own Sticky Indian Hops, a fourth-generation farm on a Native American site. In addition to finding dozens of arrowheads in their fields, they stumbled upon wild hops. “You get so many hops that you can’t sell them all to homebrew customers,” said Parker. He remarked on the relative ease they’ve had growing the hops. “They grow back year after year and the only hard part is harvesting them all.”

That’s not so for everyone, however. A hop yard tour and outdoor seminar at the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Center was less optimistic. “We’re very encouraging [to people interested in growing hops], but I caution you. Out of everyone who tries to grow hops, only 20 percent will be successful,” said Jeanine Davis (unrelated to the Davises of Sticky Indian), an associate professor of horticulture science at North Carolina State University.

Amateur hops growers don’t have to do it alone. Echoview and several other successful farms invite people who are new to hops to visit their yards. There are few rivalries and significant community support amongst Western North Carolina hops growers. Julie Jensen, owner of Echoview Farm, says any competition is friendly. “We’ve made a lot of mistakes over the past five years. When new growers come to visit, we can help them.”

Although many thriving farmers stress the difficulty of producing this fickle crop, the enthusiasm of both homebrewers and commercial breweries alike will keep hops growers busy for years to come.

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