From farm to glass, Nevada-grown hops a reality in five years
Many homebrewers know that growing hops in Northern Nevada is pretty easy. Just stick the rhizome in the ground, set up a 30-foot trellis on the north side of the house, add some drip lines, prune a bit and wait a few months. Certain varieties, such as Cascade hops, make great beer and other varieties make great patio shade. While this unscientific beer vs. shade proposal works for homebrewers, it inspires little confidence in farmers and professional brewers in the state.
In 2007-2008 the United States suffered a hops shortage due to increasing demand and climate change, spurring many homebrewers and craft breweries, such as Sierra Nevada and Rogue Ales to start growing their own hops. These brewery-owned farms usually account for a tiny percentage of the hops required for yearly production and lead to special batches instead. This year, another hops shortage caused by a surge of new breweries across the country increased demand and raised the price of hops even more.
In Nevada, the Northern Nevada Development Authority and the Business Resource
Innovation Center identified hops as a potential commodity crop. Initial testing of hops crops started in 2011 by the University of Nevada, Reno’s Cooperative Extension in northern and southern Nevada demonstrated that the state’s climate and soil could support this new specialty crop. Enter Urban Roots.
Three Urban Roots workers, two AmeriCorps volunteers, two Great Basin Brewing Company brewers and IMBĪB Custom Brews owner planted 1,000 hops bines in 10 rows on 1.05 acres in eastern Reno, May 10. The effort will prove the viability of growing hops on Northern Nevada’s high desert farms as most American varieties come from Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Colorado.
Funded by the Nevada Department of Agriculture’s Specialty Crop Block Grant program, Urban Roots’ collaboration with UNR’s College of Agriculture, Biotechnology and Natural Resources (CABNR) and High Desert Farming Initiative at the University Main Station Field Lab on McCarran Blvd. and Clearwater Rd. will provide Nevada farmers with reliable production, maintenance, harvesting and selling data. The hope is that it will encourage and guide producers to grow hops successfully by decreasing the unknown risk of starting a new crop from scratch and increase the economic impact of specialty crops in Nevada.
“We know the brewing industry wants this,” said Urban Roots Executive Director Jeff Bryant. “You go to agriculture conferences, even the small ag one in Nevada, and every time they do a session on hops, it’s standing room only. People want to grow it.”
Ideally, farmers would partner with breweries to grow specific hops for three year cycles. InBev, owner of Budweiser, uses this contract method to secure hops for years into the future, often taking supply away from craft brewers who end up with the leftovers. This leads most small breweries to use inconsistent hopping from batch to batch as they focus more on IBU and acid numbers rather than exactly replicating a recipe. An arrangement between brewers and farmers would reduce supply stress on Nevada’s budding craft market, providing Great Basin for example, a constant supply of Cascade hops for their expanding production of Icky IPA.
Urban Roots invested almost $40,000 this year to start the program. It’s surprisingly more difficult to buy one acre of guaranteed disease-free hops than to buy enough for 40 acres, Jeff said.
“It’s a lot for a farmer to invest to take that risk,” he said. “We want to take that risk away and take away stress and pressure.”
Hops grow especially well in Nevada’s arid climate, require little to no pest management, are water friendly and can generate $18.99 to $20.99 in profit per pound, according to the economic development report.
Before choosing the hops varieties, Urban Roots sent a survey to local breweries throughout the state and Tahoe, asking them about the varieties they want, how much they would pay for premium hops and if the prospect of local hops interested them. The results showed that brewers would prefer to buy locally grown hops and helped Jeff decide which 10 varieties to grow (see below for list).
“There’s a few varieties that don’t do well, which we ordered on purpose,” Jeff said. “I haven’t met a homebrewer yet who can grow Willamette.”
In the first two years, the field will not yield enough mature hops for professional brewing and instead will go to Matt Johnson, owner of IMBĪB Custom Brews, to make single malt, single hop test beers. Beer Judge Certificate Program (BJCP) judges will give feedback, “applied research and field testing” if you will, on the flavor and aroma of the hops since alpha acid percentages only show expected bitterness.
In year three, the remaining viable hops should start to reach maturity for use in small-scale experimental batches. Under the Rose Brewing Company and Great Basin Brewing called dibs and may choose to create a one-off wet hopped beer, for example. Jeff said they will hopefully donate a percentage of sales from that batch back to the farm for continued growth and research. By the fifth year when the hops reach full maturity, the experimental phase will give way to local hops sales and farm consulting.
“Early on we can probably introduce them inexpensively, but once there’s a production piece to it, we’d need to be sure to charge market value,” Jeff said.
Eventually, Jeff wants to buy a hop harvester ($15,000) and pelletizer to increase production speed and share with farms within driving distance. But for now, volunteers will need to add mulch, prune, control pests, setup cables and harvest the hops by hand. At least they have a post driver to help build cable trellises.
Hops are bines, not vines, in the cannibis family. The minor difference between bines and vines is that bines have tiny nubbins all over the stem (homebrewers know these as “those things that make your hands bleed”) that help them crawl up twine in a spiral, while vines reach out with tendrils to pull themselves up in a straight line. A mature hop bine can grow 14 inches on a sunny, summer day.
10 varieties that Urban Roots planted:
- Northern Brewer
Other uses for hops: “Hops are now being recognized for antimicrobial benefits and are being used for livestock production, processed sugar, and animal feed, particularly poultry feed since it is a great alternative to antibiotics, therefore, raising the demand for hops,” according to the economic development report.
Urban Roots’s hops grow here:
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