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The South may rise

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A new breed of Appalachian farmers are sending hops up the wire.

by Eric Seeger

When you think of North American regions known for growing hops, the Pacific Northwest probably comes to mind first. Next, upstate New York. After that, the list trails off quickly. Though things are quietly changing: For the past three years, a group of small farms in western North Carolina’s Appalachian mountain region have been raising trellises and achieving some early success.

This area of the South is best known for bluegrass, moonshine, dry counties and Eric Rudolph’s mountain hideaway. It also once had a reputation as tobacco-farming country. As that crop became less profitable, mountain farmers were forced to diversify: A drive through the counties that surround Asheville finds these farmers cultivating heirloom apples, truffles and shiitake mushrooms. It was only a matter of time before hops took root.

Located in Black Mountain, Van Burnette’s Hop’n Blueberry farm has been in the family for more than 160 years. About six years ago, Burnette began toying with the idea of growing hops when Pisgah Brewing Co. opened a few miles away.

“I started researching it, but nobody around here was growing hops. There was nobody nearby I could contact who was even considering it,” he says. So he set out on his own, and later came across other small farms attempting the same crop.

It’s all been a big experiment. Like the other local farmers, Burnette planted small crops of Centennial, Chinook, Nugget and Cascade; the latter two have fared the best. Though the South may not seem ideal for hop-growing, the Appalachians offer higher elevations and mild weather akin to Northwestern summers. The biggest challenge is the  shorter summer daylight hours of the lower latitudes, which farmers and agricultural researchers believe could shorten the plants’ growing cycle.

After plenty of work, Burnette delivered his second load of wet hops to Pisgah in 2010; in return, the brewery named its fresh-hop pale ale, Burnette’s Brew, after him.

About the same time Burnette was planning his plot, Rita Pelczar and her husband John Wright were trying to decide on a crop that they could plant on their newly purchased farmland in rural Madison County. The answer came to them over pints of Ninja Porter at Asheville Brewing Co. Greater Asheville claims just about 200,000 residents, but it supports upwards of 10 independent breweries—all of which import their hops from other parts of the country.

“I sent an email to the local breweries asking if they would be interested in buying locally grown, organic hops if we could provide them,” says Rita. “In about 30 seconds, I got a response saying yes.”

Jason Caughman, president of Pisgah Brewing, acknowledges that right now, the rhizomes are as new as the farmers. “I would love it if, in five years, I could buy all my hops from local farms,” he says. To get there, he says it wouldn’t hurt for some Appalachian farmers to spend time on the West Coast, gleaning growing and business knowledge from farmers who’ve grown hops much longer.

To move in the right direction, the equipment and growing techniques need to mature. For now, growers can only distribute to brewers that use wet hops: Few of the hop farmers have the appropriate machinery to dry and pelletize a crop, which would enable them to sell hops year-round and not just directly after harvest. But change is on the horizon, as nearby Appalachian State University is considering adding the necessary equipment to its microbrewing classroom facility, so in the future small farmers might have a place to process their crop with the help of students and faculty.

This year, Rita and John are cultivating the soil for a few more rows, adding to roughly an acre of Nugget, Cascades, Willamette, Fuggles and Magnum vines at Blue Ridge Hops. They expect to harvest enough wet hops to deliver to local breweries, and they plan on reaching the homebrew crowd via mail-order sales and beer festivals. As for Burnette, he doesn’t plan on adding any more hops to his farm this year. He sees the vine as a good addition to his current small crops of blueberries, ramps and milkweed (for butterflies), making Hop’n Blueberry Farm an attractive agritourism destination. After his main harvest has gone to Pisgah, Burnette plans on opening this season’s second harvest to the public as a “pick-your-own” opportunity for homebrewers. •

More Appalachian Eats: As tobacco has receded from the fields of the Carolina Mountains, it has been replaced by a wide variety of unusual crops. Here’s just a sampler:

Wasabi: There’s a good chance that glob of green stuff next to your sushi is nothing more than horseradish dressed up with food coloring. Authentic Wasabi japonica is rare in the United States, but Real Wasabi grows it outside Cashiers, N.C. realwasabi.com

Truffles: Over the past decade, small farms like Queens Produce and Berry Farm have planted rows of filbert trees inoculated to grow truffles; many of the crops have matured and are producing the rare, expensive fungus. Taste Carolina-grown truffles as far as Tennessee’s Blackberry Farm restaurant—or just attend Asheville’s annual National Truffle Fest. northamericantrufflefest.com

Shiitake mushrooms: More than 100 North Carolina farmers are growing the meaty mushroom, and the crop’s beginning to show up in regional grocery stores and farmers markets. Taste farm-fresh shiitakes at their best in the Mushroom Enchiladas at the all-vegetarian Laughing Seed Café in downtown Asheville, washed down with locally brewed Fox Hill Mead. laughingseed.jackofthewood.com

UPDATE: An earlier version of this article misspelled the surname of Jason Caughman. We regret the error.

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