APOPKA — With the state's iconic citrus industry reeling due to a so-far incurable bacterial disease, some Florida farmers are eyeing a new niche crop that can tap into the country's burgeoning beer-brewing business: hops.
Hops are vining plants that produce pungent flowers or buds that for hundreds of years have been used by brewers as the building blocks of a beer's flavor and aroma. The acids in hops produce bitterness, and the plants' oils give beer a floral or citrusy aroma, depending on the plant.
Traditionally, Florida was considered too hot and humid to grow hops — most varieties are grown in Germany and other European countries with cooler climates, while 95 percent of hops grown in the U.S. come from Washington and other Pacific Northwest states. An explosion of craft breweries in the U.S. has pushed demand sky high, and as a result, shortages of popular hop varieties are common for smaller breweries, which compete with much larger ones for the same supply.
Three years ago, home-brewing horticulturist Brian Pearson of the University of Florida decided he wanted fresh hops and began doing his own research on what he could grow. He started with a few plants in a small wooden shed, and that has since grown into hundreds of plants and a hope that Florida may have found a new cash crop.
"The amount of phone calls from brewers wanting them, the amount of phone calls from growers wanting to grow them, has been incredibly overwhelming," Pearson said.
The local interest makes sense. In 2015, Florida added more craft breweries than any other state at a time when citrus farmers in the nearly $11 billion industry were looking to augment their crops with something new due to citrus greening, a bacterial disease that doesn't hurt humans or animals but is devastating to citrus trees. Over the past decade or so, Florida's citrus harvest has been reduced by about 60 percent.
"Peaches, blueberries and now possibly hops all provide an outlet to grow something," said Andrew Meadows, a spokesman for Florida Citrus Mutual, an industry trade group. But he added that nothing can completely replace citrus, because it is "a way of life in Florida and forms the backbone of rural communities."
Demand is on the rise everywhere. In 2007, there was a worldwide shortage of aroma hops. While production has increased significantly, it's still hard for many small breweries to find the most sought-after hops. In 2014, about 18 percent of brewers couldn't get Citra and Amarillo hops, two popular strains, according to the Brewer's Association, a craft brewery industry trade group.
Chris Swersey, a supply chain specialist for the association, said things are getting better for craft brewers as production increases, but there is still room for growth.
In Florida, Pearson was able to grow many strains, but the most interesting is called "Neo Mexicanus," a native American hop discovered about a decade ago growing on Navajo land in New Mexico.
Pearson found some of this rare hop's rhizomes, or seeds, and planted them. The early signs were not great — the plants grew, but they weren't very palatable, likely due to the stresses on a plant associated with growing for the first time in a new environment.
"The smells were terrible, like stinky feet or rotten cheese," Pearson said.
But the next year was different. The plants were floral and sweet, with a citrusy character — exactly what brewers want. He decided to publish a peer-reviewed paper to announce that hops can be grown in Florida. Since then, dozens of farmers have contacted him with interest.
One farmer is already showing that hops can be grown in north-central Florida.
Joe Winiarksi owns a small farm and brewery in the heart of citrus country about 45 minutes from Pearson's farm. He's in his second year of growing hops, with input from Pearson on what varieties to grow. Behind a wooden, ranch-style fence, hundreds of bright green hop vines grow: Cascade, Centennial, Chinook and other hops popular with brewers.
He said people were skeptical when he started out.
"You just have to be persistent. I'm a mechanical engineer by trade, so when somebody tells me I can't do something it makes me want to do it even more," he said.
As for Florida's brewers, the interest is high, said Brandon Nappy, marketing director for Gainesville-based Swamp Head Brewery.
"Anything we can get close to home is our first choice," Nappy said.
While they haven't used any yet, Nappy said the brewery is ready to start experimenting with new brews.
Whether hop farming in Florida can be profitable is unclear.
"Right now, I think it has high potential to at least augment some of the loss of citrus," Pearson said.