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Hops in Brazil: boldly growing where none have grown before

An accidentally grown vine shows promise for Brazil's hop-growing future.
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Rodrigo Veraldi's hop farm

Rodrigo Veraldi’s hop farm | Photo courtesy of Rodrigo Veraldi

It was more than a decade ago that grower Rodrigo Veraldi first planted a few hop seeds on his farm, high in Brazil’s Mantiqueira Mountains, northeast of the city of São Paulo. To Veraldi, who grows specialty fruits and berries, the experiment was mainly a side project. According to conventional wisdom, hop vines need cold winters and long summer days found in places like Germany and the Yakima Valley; Veraldi just wanted to see if he could get hops to grow somewhere beyond their climatic comfort zone.

While some of Veraldi’s plants showed promise in his greenhouses, it was a different story outside, where they couldn’t withstand the heavy summer rains that soak the lush mountain slopes. Eventually, he pulled the plug, tossed the remains of his hop experiment onto the scrap pile and moved on to other things.

Two years later, while planting corn beside that old scrap pile, Veraldi was shocked to find that an enormous hop vine, covered in fragrant cones, had quietly burst forth and grown up a nearby tree. Stunned, he knelt beside the vigorous plant and apologized for having given up on the idea. Veraldi isn’t sure which of his experimental plants gave rise to the miracle vine because he’d been crossbreeding them, though he’s certain it’s a new variety with unique genetics.

“This is a Brazilian hop,” he says. “It was completely developed in Brazilian soil.” tweet

Veraldi began propagating clones of the vine and by 2010 had vines thriving in the field, unfazed by summer downpours. In 2013, word of his accomplishment reached Baden Baden, a small brewery in the nearby town of Campos do Jordão that was getting ready to brew a special 15th anniversary heller bock. Folks from the brewery visited Veraldi’s experimental plots on the farm and used his hops to fresh-hop their celebratory beer.

Rodrigo Veraldi | Photo by Andrew Jenner

Rodrigo Veraldi | Photo by Andrew Jenner

In 2015, Brasil Kirin, a Brazilian subsidiary of the Japanese conglomerate, Kirin (and the parent company of Baden Baden) purchased the genetic profile for Veraldi’s hop. The company intends to develop a new commercial hop variety to supply the country’s huge beer market, now entirely reliant on imported hops. This Brazilian hop is low in alpha-acids, which impart bitterness during brewing. While also relatively low in hop oils, it has a citrusy, spicy aroma reminiscent of the famous Cascade.

“I don’t believe that this is going to be the final variety or cultivar of hop in Brazil,” says Rubens Mattos, research and development manager for Brasil Kirin. “There are a lot of variables, a lot of things to be learned yet.”

To that end, Mattos is coordinating a variety of studies that will evaluate cultivation methods, disease resistance and economic viability as well as a breeding program intended to improve the hop variety’s traits.

In addition to 2.5 acres of hops on Veraldi’s farm, Brasil Kirin has established a half-acre test plot at its headquarters in Itu. The company has also entered a research partnership with Federal University of Paraná and will sell approximately 40,000 starts from Veraldi’s greenhouse to growers across Brazil, whose results will generate field data across a wide geographical area. Altogether, Mattos expects that it could take up to a decade to fully develop the vine that sprang from Veraldi’s scrap pile into Brazil’s first commercial hop.

“We’re starting to develop a hop variety in a place where no one has any experience doing this locally,” says Mattos. “It’s a work in progress.”

He imagines two potential outcomes that would qualify as happy endings. It’s possible they’ll end up with a hop that’s well-adapted to Brazil’s climate, offers a new opportunity to Brazilian farmers and is cost-competitive with imported American or European hops. Or perhaps, the hop will turn out to have some unique and interesting characteristics that could give Brazilian beers a distinct new Brazilian twist.

Regardless, as for that conventional wisdom about hops not growing in Brazil?

“That idea is wrong,” Mattos says.

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