“Hey, Matt, it’s Art,” says Art Robertson, calling a local brewery about the hops growing a few feet from him. But Robertson doesn’t need to call breweries. They usually call him.
“Every person – brew master – that I’ve talked to it's like, ‘I have hops.’ And they’re like, ‘How much? How much weight do you have, how much poundage do you have?’” says Robertson about the acre or so he’s growing in southern Alamance County.
But he’s not the only grower with hops that are savored by local craft breweries. Patrick Harman grew a field of them with his group, From the Ground Up, which takes abandoned lots in High Point and puts them to agricultural use. They grew a variety of things, hops being just one of them.
“They’re perennials and they don’t need quite as much tending as tomatoes and green beans and that sort of thing,” says Harman, who sold his to High Point’s newest craft brewery, Brown Truck.
“It’s a different flavor, if you’ve never had a wet hop, before,” says one of Brown Truck’s owners, John Vaughan.
The pale ale they brewed with the local hops had a flavor that the customers really seemed to like and, being a locally-brewed beer using local ingredients, the Brown Truck customers are eager to give it a try because it’s all part of the experience.
“I think what we’ve done, here, is have people take ownership – call this their brewery,” says Vaughan.
But in the long run, the hops farmers may have a tougher time making a go of it, versus the brewers themselves, since North Carolina doesn’t have the long summer days the pacific northwest does.
“It's going to be very difficult for the farmers to make a good profit with the existing varieties that we have,” says Jeanine Davis, who is running a hops program for North Carolina State University’s ag extension. “Cascade is a very popular variety that does pretty well. But I think the future of this industry is going to be in identifying and developing varieties that produce much better.”
Davis and her team are doing just that, finding that Canadian Red Vine is doing well, so far, and they are even creating their own new breeds to see if they can find one that is uniquely North Carolinian.
“I feel we're in a transition time right now, where some of those early growers have just said, 'Well, I've done that, I'm not making much money, I'm ready to get out,'” says Davis. “And now we're seeing some of the bigger, more serious producers come in, that come in with some dollars, they're putting up a sizable yard and they're going to try to do it big, with all the proper equipment. But I still say it's going to be another 10 years before we really know, is this going to be an established industry or are we just always going to have a few hop yards around our mountains.”
Meanwhile, Robertson – a beer lover himself – will do what he can to keep it all going in Alamance County.
“This is not a labor of love, it is more a love of labor,” says Robertson.
See more in this edition of the Buckley Report.