Science is “Hopping”

Hop cones

As some of you may know, I am a homebrewer, along with several other faculty, staff, and students in the NCSU Dept. of Soil Science. Last week I was offered the opportunity to pick hops on a hops variety trial that our department has been working on for the last few years along with the horticulture department. I was told that I could keep whatever I picked. A homebrewer on a grad student budget doesn’t pass up an opportunity like that!

Hops are a bittering agent used in beer. Bittering agents, along with the presence of alcohol, act as natural preservatives that keep bad microbes from growing in beer. Charlie Papazian, a well known author of homebrewing books, posted an article on his blog recently about hops that gives a good perspective on how homebrewers and brewers relish hops.

In the US, most of the hops are grown in the Pacific Northwest (Washington, Oregon, Northern California, etc.). This region has long days during the growing season, and perfect climatic conditions for hops. The areas were hops are grown in this region also have very low humidity. North Carolina, on the other hand, has high humidity and shorter days during the growing season. The humidity makes the hop plants susceptible to disease. The point of this trial was to identify what varieties might be worth growing in the state on a commercial scale to supply the growing craft brewery demand for hops in the state. You can read about the project, results, etc. on the research group’s website.

I think this project is a good example of how investments in science can help develop new markets. It’s still unknown, and probably unlikely, that a booming hop industry will develop in North Carolina. But I think there will always be a small market for niche farmers hoping to provide local hops to “locavore” homebrewers, and perhaps some craft breweries for special batches of brew.

Here are some pictures of the hand-harvesting process for the hop yard trial:

This is the hop yard. The trellaces are 14 ft tall. The ladder shown in the picture is 8 ft tall for reference. The total area is 1/4 acre.
Picking hops

For each plant we harvested, we had to weigh the wet weight yield. We spent about three hours harvesting that morning. Once we were done harvesting and weighing the yield we took the hops back to campus to dry them.

We spread out the hops on a rack of trays. Each tray has a screen for the bottom. Some box fans are set up below all the racks. Those fans pull air through the trays and hops, and blows the air out the sides of the stack near the bottom. It takes about two days to dry them. As we laid out the hops, we had to pick out the bad ones too.

Drying hops
Picking out the bad hops
A full stack of six hop trays

Our total harvest for two guys picking hops by hand was 21.5 oz in three hours. We had 10 oz of Cascade, 3 oz of Newport, 5 oz of Nugget, and 3.5 oz of Zeus. I didn’t get a picture of it, but once the hops were dried, we packaged them using a vacuum-pack machine. They are then stored in a freezer until they’re ready for brewing.

It was a fun project to help with, and made for a nice change of pace from my own research.

Thanks for stopping by!




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