Last weekend I attended the South Atlantic Hop Growers Conference in Richmond, VA. Regardless of the many challenges, there is no shortage of enthusiasm for hop growing in the Mid Atlantic and Southeast. Researchers at several east coast universities aim to breed varieties that can produce PNW yields in lower day length regions, more university test plots are going in all the time, and we can expect grants to fuel research at private hop yards in non-traditional growing regions in the near future. The bottom line is that public and private funds are increasingly being directed toward hop growing in the Mid Atlantic.
Acres planted outside the PNW continue to increase sharply despite current obstacles (abysmal yields, lack of processing infrastructure, lack of grower experience, etc.). Hop Growers of America reported nearly 3% of 2015 hop acreage planted in states other than WA, OR, and ID. Rumor has it Michigan will soon be added to the 3 states typically reported. Both the numbers and momentum feel similar to the “microbrewing” industry ~20 years ago. The same can be said for the level of camaraderie; experienced growers are helping new growers learn how to build trellises, hop kilns, process pellets, etc.
What does this mean for us brewers? Are new “South Atlantic” varieties on the horizon? Will NC State and Virginia Tech uncover previously discarded varieties capable of producing adequate yields in the region? Will there soon be opportunities to diversify supply, increase sustainability, and purchase significant quantities of locally grown hops produced and processed at the level of quality to which we’re accustomed? Is hop selection about to require a trip to the east coast as well? I think it’s important to not get too carried away and to understand that breeding for acceptable yields is critical to significant progress. Money can fix the lack of infrastructure, but this only makes sense when normal yields are possible. Currently, if you properly manage your soil, pests, disease, irrigation, and do everything else right, a Cascade bine planted here in VA might give you a quarter of the yield vs that same bine grown in Yakima. Breeding is not a fast process, but it feels like big progress and sweeping change is certainly possible within the next 10-15 years.
New growers list hops on The Lupulin Exchange all the time. The volumes may be small, but the number of options available to brewers is certainly on the rise. It sure is a great time to be a brewer. I look forward to seeing how all of this unfolds in the years to come…and one day brewing with varieties unique to the Mid Atlantic.