From farm to glass, Nevada-grown hops a reality in five years

Hop cones ready for harvest at the UNR's Main Station Field Lab, Reno.
Hop cones ready for harvest at the UNR's Main Station Field Lab, Reno.

Many homebrewers know that growing hops in Northern Nevada is pretty easy. Just stick the rootstock in the ground, set up a 30-foot trellis on the north side of the house, add some drip lines, prune a bit and wait a few months. Certain varieties, such as Cascade hops, make great beer and other varieties make great patio shade. While this unscientific beer vs. shade proposal works for homebrewers, it inspires little confidence in farmers and professional brewers in the state.

In 2007-2008 the United States suffered a hops shortage due to increasing demand and climate change, spurring many homebrewers and craft breweries, such as Sierra Nevada and Rogue Ales to start growing their own hops. These breweryowned farms usually account for a tiny percentage of the hops required for yearly production and lead to special batches instead. This year, another hops shortage caused by a surge of new breweries across the country increased demand and raised the price of hops even more.

In Nevada, the Northern Nevada Development Authority and the Business Resource Innovation Center identified hops as a potential commodity crop. In 20011, University of Nevada Cooperative Extension’s initially tested hops in both northern and southern Nevada, demonstrating that the state’s climate and soil could support this new specialty crop. Enter the CABNR/Nevada Ag Experiment Station.

UNR’s Main Station Field Lab now has 1,000 hops vines, representing 10 varieties, planted this past spring by a small team of interested parties, under the direction of Urban Roots director Jeff Bryant. The effort will prove the viability of growing hops on Northern Nevada’s high desert, as most American varieties come from Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Colorado.

Funded by the Nevada Department of Agriculture’s Specialty Crop Block Grant program, this collaboration between CABNR, Urban Roots, & High Desert Farming Initiative will provide Nevada farmers with reliable production, maintenance, harvesting and selling data. The hope is that it will encourage and guide producers to grow hops successfully by decreasing the unknown risk of starting a new crop from scratch and increase the economic impact of specialty crops in Nevada.

“We know the brewing industry wants this,” said Bryant. “You go to agriculture conferences, even the small ag one in Nevada, and every time they do a session on hops, it’s standing room only. People want to grow it.”

Using almost $40,000 of the Specialty Crop Block Grant this year to start the program, “It’s surprisingly more difficult to buy one acre of guaranteed disease-free hops than to buy enough for 40 acres,” Bryant said. “It’s a lot for a farmer to invest to take that risk,” he said. “We want to take that risk away and take away stress and pressure.”

Hops grow especially well in Nevada’s arid climate, require little to no pest management, are water friendly and can generate $18.99 to $20.99 in profit per pound, according to the economic development report.

Before choosing the hops varieties, a needs assessment was conducted of local breweries throughout the state and Tahoe, asking them about the varieties they want, how much they would pay for premium hops and if the prospect of local hops interested them. The results showed that brewers would prefer to buy locally grown hops and helped decide which 10 varieties to grow.

“There’s a few varieties that don’t do well, which we ordered on purpose,” Bryant said. “I haven’t met a homebrewer yet who can grow Willamette.”

In the first two years, the field will not yield enough mature hops for professional brewing and instead will go to the owner of IMBĪB Custom Brews, to make single malt, single hop test beers. Graduates from the Beer Judge Certificate Program will provide feedback, on the flavor and aroma of the hops.

By year three, the remaining viable hops should start to reach maturity for use in small-scale experimental batches. By the fifth year when the hops reach full maturity, the experimental phase will give way to commercial sales and farm consulting.

Eventually, net sales should support the purchase of a hop harvester ($15,000) and pelletizer to increase production speed and, ultimately, shared with the local farming community. But for now, volunteers will need to add mulch, prune, control pests, setup cables and harvest the hops by hand. At least they have a post driver to help build cable trellises.

by Mike Higdon (drinkablereno.com)