Farm Calls: Contemplating Hops

Northeast SARE USDA summer farm tour in Rhode IslandForestry Specialist Mark Vodak was recently “talking shop” with a friend who happens to be a berry farmer. His friend is contemplating a new venture this season – growing hops.

Hop, Humulus lupulus L., is an essential ingredient contributing to beer aroma & flavor and, is of interest in biomedical research.
Their conversation brings up some common questions about growing an alternative crop like hops in New Jersey:

  • Who do I talk to about growing hops?
  • What’s going on with hops in the region?
  • What do I need to know starting out when growing hops in New Jersey?

Who do I talk to about hops?

Knowledge of the crop and passion for beer – or the other way round – is essential. Hop production calls can be fielded by our trusty Burlington County Ag Agent Bill Bamka. His fact sheet, Growing Hops in the Backyard FS992, details much of what you need to get started. John Grande and Ed Dager at Rutgers Snyder Research & Extension Farm also have some expertise in this area – as seen in a video on the subject, Hops Solution. A different video, on VHS, is on file at Snyder Farm, and is loaned out to farmers. Currently, it’s out to Hillary Barile of Rabbit Hill Farm in Cumberland.

What’s going on with hops in the region?

In Rhode Island: Here are some photos from a hops production block at a farm we visited during the SARE summer farm tour: Hops Trellis Height SARE RI Summer 2011. The grower has a NE SARE grant to determine the impact of trellis height (12 ft vs the typical 18 ft) on hops production quality and efficiency: Ocean State Hops SARE Grant. Eighteen foot trellising is expensive and difficult to install. However, since hops buds begin developing 1 – 2 meters from the base, lower trellising reduces yields.

In New York: Prospective hops producers and users can gain a lot of valuable information from the expanding Northeast Hop Alliance, an organization in NY State dedicated to revival of hops production in the region.
These growers are likely to have collected the most observations on varieties desired by brewers & tolerant of our region conditions. Some of these producers, like Foothill Hops, direct market hops via the internet.
Recently, the New York Times ran an article highlighting hop revival: Hops in NY State NYT Nov 2011

What do I need to know starting out when growing hops in New Jersey?

There was a brief period of time when hops were in short supply but that’s no longer the case. So, before you plant hops you need have an idea of who will be buying them. Selling hops is only as good as the specific varieties craft brewers want to purchase. Strike up a relationship with micro-breweries and home brewers. They are passionate and specific about what they want. Brewers look for hop varieties known to contribute a bittering (typically alpha acids) or “finishing” aroma (chiefly myrcene) component.

  • Order your hop rhizomes early to get a good selection since the demand is high and the companies offering quality supply is low.
  • 2,000 lbs. per acre is a typical hop yield in the U.S. Zeus, Columbus/Tomahawk, Cascade, and Super Galena are the most produced varieties.

Here is the 2011 National Hop Report.

  • Understand that hops require a relatively expensive trellising system for the best yield but some small scale growers do use a maypole type system that’s less costly.
  • Weed control, pest, & disease management are of course concerns for East Coast production. Hop diseases include: mildew, canker, root tor, wilt, and viruses. Hop powdery mildew is a significant problem responsible for crop failures in the past. Downy mildew can affect perennial crowns and cones.
  • Harvesting occurs mid-August to September and can be done by hand picking the cones (which requires multiple passes through the hopyard) or cutting down the vines when about 70% of the hops are mature. After harvest, hops require proper drying and storage.
  • Organically grown hops present the biggest growing challenges in New Jersey. You may be aware that effective January 2013, a law pertaining to organic beer will require that hops used in production be organic. Up to now most organic hops were grown in New Zealand due to lower pest pressure, but this law will probably spur interest by local growers. Growing organic hops in New Jersey is extremely difficult due to persistent disease pressure from humidity.

The most important thing for a grower entering hop production to do is network – talk to fellow hop growers and your Ag Extension Agent so you have an idea of what to expect with your new venture of growing hops in New Jersey.

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