High hopes for hops

By Vicki Hyatt | Feb 11, 2013
Heidi Dunkelberg is shown picking hops, a key ingredient in beer that grows on a vine that is up to 16 feet tall.

 

Heidi Dunkelberg has a vision that celebrates the county’s rich agricultural history and embraces one of the fastest-growing industries in the region — the craft brewing industry.

For the past five years, Dunkelberg has been growing hops, one of the four required ingredients in beer. (Water, barley and yeast are the three others.)

Hops are a key flavoring ingredient in brewing beer, and Dunkelberg is convinced that if enough growers in the area work together, the outcome can be a Haywood County ale that can be branded and marketed to help the local economy.

“Hops that we grow here will be different from those grown anywhere else in the world,” she said. “We have to develop quality hops and then work with breweries to find our place.”

Currently, there is a high demand for any type of local hops, Dunkelberg said, but eventually brewers will need to have sufficient quantity to produce a consistent product.

That will require a lot of hops — and a lot of growers working together. Hops are perennials that take several years to begin bearing. While the vines customarily grow 16 feet tall, it takes a lot of them to produce a sizeable quantity of dried hops to sell.

For instance, Dunkelberg has devised a new growing method where she doesn’t need to climb a ladder during harvest. She instead sets a 12-foot post and attaches a 4-foot by 16-foot wire cattle panel on which the vines can climb. At harvest, she simply lowers the panel and picks from the ground. One panel may take a day to pick, she said, and will yield about 10 pounds of hops, tiny flowers that resemble a miniature pinecone. While some beer is made with wet hops, the brewing industry prefers them dried. The drying process shrinks the volume considerably, meaning that a single cattle panel yields about three to four pounds of marketable product. Currently, local hops sell for between $4 and $5 an ounce, she said, and a barrel of beer, or 33 gallons, requires about one-half pound of hops.

Because of Hayywood’s mountainous topography, and the high cost of machinery used to harvest the product, it is likely that hops growing will continue to be a labor-intensive process. Hand-picking takes time, and must be done when the time is right. It is also unlikely that any single grower will be able to produce enough to supply a brewery with enough hops to produce more than several dozen barrels.

That’s why working together makes perfect sense, and it is the reason Dunkelberg is presenting a two-hour workshop at Haywood Community College Tuesday. The workshop, which will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. in the college’s Student Center, will provide an overview of the hops growing business and offer a chance for local hops growers and would-be growers to become acquainted.

“I’ll be asking people there to form a club,” she said, noting that the first issue at hand will be to determine what type of hops the area brewing businesses want. There are many varieties, and if a group marketing effort is to be effective, the growers will need to agree on what varieties should be the focus.

The hops rhizomes, or root stalks, should be planted in March, so the group will need to work quickly if a plan is to be hatched this year.

“The whole idea is for people to make money growing hops,” Dunkelberg said. “Maybe someone in that workshop will take the idea and run with it. We can put Haywood County on the map for hops.”

There are not only many varieties of hops, but many forms as well. There’s whole hops, hop pellets, hop plugs, hop oil and even the sale of hop rhizomes. Perhaps the home brewing industry will be the best fit for Haywood, Dunkelberg speculated.

There are other ways hops growers could work together. Drying hops can be a challenge, so a drying area somewhere in the county would be ideal. Then there’s the tremendous advantage to be gained by growers sharing their experiences, both good and bad, so that the learning curve can be reduced.

Those who are unable to attend the Tuesday workshop can easily find Dunkelberg. She, along with Karen Grogan, own The Coffe Cup Café in Clyde where coffee and plenty of other nourishing and tasty fares can be found.

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