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, a key component in beer production, is 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 far cry 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, 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 to tour the yards, sample beer and listen to bluegrass. To say that Asheville loves its beer is an understatement. For the past three years, Asheville has won the coveted Beer City USA poll. The area’s eleven of breweries and burgeoning hops scene has made the Asheville area a beer destination for visitors from throughout the country. Randy and Jean Mosher frequently visit from Florida, often with beer in mind. “We don’t have good beers down there so we come up here for our beer,” they said.
Many local residents are trying their hand at growing their own hops, both for homebrew and commercial production. Phillip, Parker and John Davis own Sticky Indian Hops, a fourth-generation farm on a Native American campground. 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 Davis. He remarked on the relative ease of growing hops. “They grow back year after year and the only hard part is harvesting them all.”
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% will be successful,” said Jeanine Davis (unrelated), an associate professor in the Department of Horticultural 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 of a friendly nature. “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.
Photos by Rich Orris