By Stefanie Jackson – Dixon Leatherbury, an Eastern Shore native, retired farm equipment dealer, and Northampton County supervisor, has been taking on the challenge of growing and selling hops since 2015.
Hops are the green, cone-shaped flowers of the hop plant – which is related to hemp and marijuana – and are primarily used to add stability and flavor to beer. That flavor may be bitter, citric, or zesty. Hops can also flavor other beverages and be used in herbal medicines and as a natural antibiotic.
Brewing beer or ale with hops dates back to ninth century Germany. Prior to that, blends of bitter herbs and flowers such as horehound, dandelion, and heather were used to offset the sweetness introduced to the brew by the wort, a mix of malted barley and yeast.
It was discovered that the hops’ natural antibacterial properties kept beer and ale from spoiling; hops became popular in 19th century Britain because the ale brewed with hops could be shipped unrefrigerated to British troops in India. That was the beginning of the popular brew style known today as an India pale ale or IPA.
Hops were grown in Virginia as early as the 1600s, and Thomas Jefferson grew hops at Monticello.
About 80% of U.S. hops production is in the Pacific Northwest; the rest is mainly in the Midwest and on the East Coast. The Eastern Shore is near the southernmost edge of the East Coast area in which hops are grown.
In northern latitudes, which get about an hour more of daylight in the summer, hop plants can grow up to 30 feet tall and yield up to 10 pounds of wet hops per plant – about four times as much as Leatherbury observes in his hop yard, he said.
His farm is working with North Carolina State University, which received a grant to breed a variety of hops that is better suited to the shorter summer days farther south.
Hops come in hundreds of varieties, divided into two main groups: bittering and aromatics. Varieties of hops that grow well on the Shore include Cascade (named after the Cascade mountains), Nugget, and Zeus.
Only female hop plants are grown on Leatherbury’s farm in Machipongo. If male plants were introduced, they would fertilize the female plants, producing seeds and lending an “off flavor” to the end product.
The higher demand for hops in recent years was driven by the increasing popularity of IPAs, the farm-to-table experience, and nano- and microbreweries, Leatherbury said.
The Shore has two microbreweries of its own – the Cape Charles Brewing Co. and Chincoteague’s Black Narrows Brewing Co. There are 32 microbreweries in Hampton Roads, including Big Ugly Brewing, in Chesapeake, which uses Leatherbury’s hops.
Pests and Threats
Downy and powdery mildew are two types of common threats for hops, which are combated by spraying the hops with mildew killer every seven to 10 days, Leatherbury said.
Insects that are pests to hops include potato leafhoppers, Japanese beetles, and what Leatherbury calls his nemesis – two spotted spider mites. Pesticides can be applied to the hops to kill the insects before they damage or kill the plants.
Growing hops organically is possible but not economical, he noted.
Hop plants are dormant during the winter, and edible shoots begin to emerge in March. The edible plant is available for such a short time it is considered a delicacy and can be served in a salad, cooked like asparagus, or pickled.
The hop plants become too bitter to eat once they reach about eight to 10 inches tall.
When the plants are tall enough, around late April or early May, they are trained to climb up strings made of coir, or coconut husk fiber, which are attached to trellises.
Three or four shoots per plant are chosen to wind around the string, and the rest are trimmed away. Training the plants and trimming are done by hand.
The shoots must be wound clockwise around the strings or they will unwind themselves, Leatherbury said.
New shoots that emerge later also must be cut by hand, but a chemical spray can be used on them after the hop plants reach six feet tall.
Burrs, which will grow into cones, begin to emerge in mid-May.
Harvesting and Processing
A large-scale harvester, bigger than a tractor-trailer, costs about $1 million and can harvest about 200 hop plants per hour; Leatherbury uses a small-scale harvester that was designed and built on his farm.
After the hop plants are harvested and the leaves and cones have been removed from the plants and separated, the cones are ready to be sold or processed.
The fresh, unprocessed cones are called wet hops because they have a moisture content of 70% to 75%. Wet hops must be used quickly, because they will spoil within 48 hours, even with refrigeration.
Beer brewed with wet hops has a “more dramatic, slightly grassier” taste, Leatherbury said.
Since hops are harvested in late August and early September, and it takes about six weeks for yeast to cause fermentation and produce alcohol, a beer brewed with wet hops will be ready just in time for Oktoberfest, he added.
Hops that are not used wet must be dried at a low temperature – not more than about 125 degrees, or the batch will be ruined – so Leatherbury uses “a lot of air but not much heat” to dry the hops until they have less than 10% moisture content.
When dried hops are refrigerated, they can last up to four months, and when they are also vacuum packed, they can last up to 18 months.
Dried hops can be processed into pellets, which can last two years or more and are preferred by brewers because the pellets are much easier to use.
After a brew has fermented in a steel tank, if hop pellets were used, the plant material will have sunk to the bottom, making for easy cleanup. However, whole-cone hops contain leafy material that floats to the top of the tank and must be skimmed off.
Most pellitizers heat their contents to 190 or 200 degrees. A special pellitizer is needed to process hops, and there is only one in Virginia. That machine was unavailable this year, so Leatherbury shipped hops to New York to be pellitized, and he looks forward to finding more economical ways to transport the hops.
Starting a hop yard with several hundred plants is “not a hobby” and requires patience. A newly planted hop yard will be about 20% productive in the first year, about 50% to 60% in the second year, and about 80% to 90% by the third year, Leatherbury said.
Establishing a hop yard costs about $15,000 per acre, and there are ongoing costs for labor, fertilizer, and other supplies.
One acre can be planted with 1,000 hop plants, which will yield around 2,500 pounds of wet hops or 750 to 800 pounds of dried hops (about 3.5 pounds of wet hops will make one pound of dried hops), Leatherbury said.
Wet hops sell for around $5 to $10 a pound, and dried hops sell for around $15 to $20 a pound. If hop farmers can get top dollar for their crops, their yards can potentially bring in $15,000 per acre every year.
Growing hops is “plenty of work … but it is fun,” Leatherbury said. “I have met more delightful folks – brewers are really a different lot. …They think outside the box, and they’re fun to be around.”