After making his own beer for a few months, Brian Pearson wanted fresher hops.
Good hops, he realized, were key to good beer, since they shape its flavor and aroma. But fresh hops were nowhere to be found in Florida. Most of North America's crop is grown in the Pacific Northwest, and conventional wisdom suggested it would not do well so far south.
But Pearson, a University of Florida researcher, wondered if anyone had tried. A horticulturist by training, he checked scientific journals and found nothing. A few online forums suggested it could be done, so he bought a few plants and gave it a try. His small-scale tests seemed to work.
"As a horticulturist, I thought, 'Wow, I need to look into this more,' " Pearson said.
Now, he's getting a chance. Pearson is part of a group of UF researchers who will test how well hops grow in Florida with a two-year study in Hillsborough and Orange counties.
Starting this spring, researchers plan to grow more than 40 varieties of hops at UF's test farms in Wimauma and Apopka to see what kinds, if any, could be used in Florida. The study is backed by a $158,000 grant from the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
If they're successful, hop farmers could quickly find a market in Florida. The number of craft breweries here exploded to 111 in 2014, up from 45 in 2011, according to the Brewers Association, a craft beer trade group. All together, they produced 1.1 million barrels of beer, enough for every adult of drinking age in the state to have 2.4 gallons.
Many brewers around Tampa Bay have perked up at the possibility of locally grown hops, said Simon Bollin, Hillsborough County's agribusiness development manager. If it works, Florida farmers could get a new niche crop, and craft breweries could get a new way to set their beer apart.
"There's significant demand for this crop," Bollin said. "The question is: Is it economically viable?"
Making a hop crop work financially in Florida could be challenging.
The fast-growing hop industry centers around the Pacific Northwest. The Hop Growers of America trade group estimates 97 percent of America's hop production happens in Washington, Oregon and Idaho. Hop varieties are developed for the Northwest, and the region has the infrastructure to process them.
It's no accident that the Northwest reigns supreme, researchers say: Hops grow best with long days and short, cool nights. In the heat and humidity of the South, they sometimes struggle with mildew and disease.
So when Jeanine Davis, a researcher at North Carolina State University, started to study how they would do in her state, she ran into some issues.
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Nights aren't cold enough, so plants don't grow as robustly as they do out West. Summer days aren't long enough in the South, so growers have tried stringing up lights to mimic sunlight even after dusk. The yields have been big enough to work as a niche product, but not to support big production.
N.C. State researchers are starting to grow varieties more amenable to the South, but for now, Davis said, if the cool mountains of North Carolina have proved challenging, steamy Central Florida might be even tougher.
"The farther south we get, the lower our yields are compared to up North," she said. In Florida, she said, "These problems will be even more exaggerated."
But Joe Winiarski, co-owner of Backyard Barn Winery and Microbrewery in Wildwood, says the crop can still fare well here.
He started growing hops as a home brewer, and when he and his wife, Melissa, started making beer commercially last year, they decided to put them to the test, growing hops just feet from their brewery. In the spring, they plan to grow 400 plants.
Winiarski expects production to increase as the plants mature. In any case, he has grown enough to make beers such as a pale ale using them, and the hop yard has drawn lots of interest from customers and nearby home brewers.
"We have blown away all the myths," Winiarski said. "The preliminary results we're getting are tremendous."
Backyard Barn might offer a good model of what a Florida hop industry could look like. Pearson says he doesn't expect the state to become a behemoth, but he figures hops could be a lucrative crop for some farmers.
And local hops are a way for Florida's craft brewers to establish a unique flavor. Like grapes and wine, hops and beer pick up flavors and aromas unique to the region they're grown in, he said. In tests elsewhere, Southeastern hops have reportedly made beer with a bitterness that tastes smoother than Northwestern varieties. Early tests in Florida have shown similar results.
"Certainly, I don't think the Budweisers and the Millers are very concerned about our efforts," Pearson said.
But as for local breweries? "This gives them an opportunity to serve a Florida beer that has a flavor that is from Florida," he said.
Contact Thad Moore at email@example.com or (813) 226-3434.