A hop and a prayer — scientists cultivate key beer ingredient in Hillsborough County

Researchers are trying to make a variety of hops suitable to Florida’s climate.
Jeremy Sutliff drags a freshly cut hop plant over to the harvesting machine at the Gulf Coast Research and Education Center in Wimauma.
Jeremy Sutliff drags a freshly cut hop plant over to the harvesting machine at the Gulf Coast Research and Education Center in Wimauma. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Dec. 14, 2019

WIMAUMA — Shinsuke Agehara likes a challenge.

The plant physiologist has tackled nutrient profiles for strawberries and tomatoes, two of Florida’s marquee crops. He co-wrote guidelines for growing artichokes and pomegranates in the state’s tricky climate.

Now, he’s figuring out how to produce hops. More specifically, how to make the key ingredient in beer a commercially viable option for local farmers.

Hops aren’t supposed to grow in Florida. The days are too short, the summers too hot. The sandy ground is nothing like the hops-friendly soil in the Pacific Northwest, where more than 90 percent of the country’s crop is grown. Many of the family farms in Washington, Oregon and Idaho have grown hops for generations, passing down valuable know-how.

Shinsuke Agehara
Shinsuke Agehara [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Agehara started from scratch four years ago. Earlier this month, he stood in an open-sided building at the Gulf Coast Research and Education Center in eastern Hillsborough County as his team fed freshly cut hop vines into what looked like a sophisticated wood chipper. The machine’s belts and spindles stripped the cones from the vines and rolled them into a bucket. The space smelled like a brew pub.

Agehara and his team now know hops will survive in Florida, but survival is just the starting point. The next step includes figuring what growers can do to get the most hops out of every vine at a competitive price.

“It’s about quality and yield,” Agehara said, pulling at his eyeglasses. “It sounds simple, but a lot goes into it.”

A short walk from the noisy machine is the field where the team harvested the vines, now reduced to stubs sticking about 10 inches out of the soil. This is where much of the experimenting began.

Commercially grown hop vines — technically known as bines — twist their way out of the ground up a piece of twine to a trellis. Ideally, each vine grows tall and wide before flowering. A vine that flowers too soon won’t produce as many pounds of hops.

In the Pacific Northwest, the sun stays up for 16 hours in June, which keeps the vines from flowering. Florida days aren’t nearly that long. Agehara and his team needed five hours of additional light.

The solution was strings of LEDs hung from wires between wooden poles. At day’s end, the lights come on, mimicking the sun for a few hours. But extending the day wasn’t cheap. The set up — poles, lights, trellis and plants — cost nearly $16,000, not including labor. The lights alone ran $3,200 per acre plus $2,220 for light strings and about $100 a year in electricity, costs farmers in the Pacific Northwest don’t incur.

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The recently harvested hop field at the Gulf Coast Research and Education Center.
The recently harvested hop field at the Gulf Coast Research and Education Center. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Agehara started with a single, 18-foot string for each vine to climb, about the same height as most set-ups in Washington, where farmers harvest hops once a year. Florida gets two seasons per year, with harvests in June and November or December, but each season is a little shorter than the growing season in Washington. That means Florida hop plants may require less growing space. So Agehara is experimenting with lines that are 12 and 15 feet tall. He’s also spacing the lights 20 feet apart, double the gap he used in previous seasons. The hope: If he can get the same or higher yield out of shorter poles and fewer lights, the initial set-up won’t cost as much.

So far, the vines have produced 40 to 50 percent as much hops as vines in the Pacific Northwest, Agehara said. Not bad, given that the 2-year-old plants have not reached full potential, but the yield needs to improve for Florida hops to become more than a niche product.

To that end, Agehara erected V-shaped twine on a second acre next to the original vines. The system should encourage each vine to grow vertically but also laterally across the V, creating a wall of vines with more space to produce their valuable cones.

The set-up costs about $3,000 more per acre than single-line trellises, but Agehara thinks it will pay off.

• • •

Zhanao Deng picks open a hop cone at the Gulf Coast Research and Education Center.
Zhanao Deng picks open a hop cone at the Gulf Coast Research and Education Center. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Agehara isn’t alone in the quest. He’s part of a team of plant biologists, field managers and other researchers, including Zhanao Deng, a professor of environmental horticulture at the research center, run by the University of Florida.

Agehara experiments with the particulars of growing hops — how to set up the trellis, how much water to apply. Deng figures out which hop varieties grow best in Florida.

The Cascade variety has been the clear winner, helpful given its popularity with brewers. Comet, Nugget and Zeus have shown promise, Deng said. Magnum, Chinook, Centennial and Cashmere haven’t worked well.

Eventually, Deng will experiment with crossing one variety onto another to produce new varieties, which can grow larger, produce more, make good beers, or fight off pests like spider mites or nematodes, microscopic worms common to Florida that invade plant roots.

He picks a Cascade cone off a recently harvested vine and breaks it apart with his thumbs, revealing many yellow glands. A waft of grapefruit fills the air.

“We know that no one wants hops that grow great but don’t taste good,” he said.

To that end, they measure everything — how quickly the vines grow, how long they were in the field, the number of branches they sprout, the water they receive. Same for how much fertilizer and pesticide. They pluck cones from the vines to test acid levels and oils, vital for getting consistent bitterness, flavor and aroma. They weigh the vines before they go into the harvester and after they come out. They record how many pounds of cones each plant produces. They weigh them again after drying them overnight in a room that reaches 125 degrees.

The final product ends up in vacuum-sealed bags inside a freezer. They give some away to Florida brewers.

Have they tasted the beer? Both men smile.

“Of course,” Deng said.

Was it good?

“Yes. For sure.”

• • •

Ty Weaver, head brewer at 3 Daughters Brewing.
Ty Weaver, head brewer at 3 Daughters Brewing. [ 3 Daughter Brewing ]

At 3 Daughters Brewing in St. Petersburg, head brewer Ty Weaver was preparing to use hops grown at the research center for 60 barrels of pale ale. He’s used the hops in other small batches, including a lager. He likes what he’s seen — and tasted.

Weaver and director of quality Desiree Chubb gushed about incorporating locally grown ingredients in their products. It helps put the craft in craft beer, they said.

When 3 Daughters opened six years ago, did the notion of Florida-grown hops cross their minds?

“No,” they said simultaneously.

Weaver and Chubb remember their first visit to the research center a few years ago. Wilted hop plants inside a greenhouse didn’t inspire confidence. A lot has changed. So much so that 3 Daughters brewed a beer earlier this year called “That’s Deng Good,” a golden pale ale named for professor Deng with “a blend of caramels, citrus fruits and earthy bitterness from the fresh hop in the kettle.”

Desiree Chubb, direct of quality at 3 Daughter Brewing
Desiree Chubb, direct of quality at 3 Daughter Brewing [ 3 Daughters Brewing ]

“We haven’t figured out how to use Agehara in a beer name,” Chubb said. “But we’ll get there.”

The Brewers Association listed 285 breweries in Florida last year, up from 45 in 2011. Several have already promoted beers made with Florida-grown hops, including Cigar City and Coppertail Brewing in Tampa and Motorworks in Bradenton. A few farmers are growing hops with mixed success, including Florida Hops Growers in Dade City.

Weaver would love to see Florida growers perfect several varieties that cost brewers about $10 to $13 a pound.

“That would make them competitive,” he said. “There’s a ways to go, but I think there’s a real desire among local brewers for them to make it work.”

• • •

Wet hops, after being run through the harvest machine, at the Gulf Coast Research and Education Center.
Wet hops, after being run through the harvest machine, at the Gulf Coast Research and Education Center. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Back at the research facility, Agehara talks about how Florida farmers need profitable crops to grow.

In the last 20 years, citrus greening and other diseases devastated the orange crop. Low-cost tomatoes from Mexico — artificially low, some experts argue — put a dent in Florida’s production. And a five-fold increase in Mexican strawberries forced local farmers to lower prices, according to a study from a University of Florida economist.

Agehara thinks hops could fill part of the void, but it could take years. He and his team don’t know how much the yields will increase as the vines mature. Some plants have done well in the first year, only to wither a year later. Will the vines last 10 to 15 years like many in the Pacific Northwest? Will two harvests a year wear the plants out? Can they survive a decade of hot and rainy summers?

“Lots of questions,” he said.

Agehara flashes another smile as he describes one of the perks. He didn’t use to drink much beer, he said. Now, he has the perfect excuse.