A new crop is taking hold in Washington County, Va. It’s a popular ingredient in India Pale Ale beers, adding a bitter or citrus flavor.
A local grower and scientist is now farming this crop, called hops.
Justen Dick of Meadowview says he's lucky to grow hops. "We're right on the edge of feasibility, which is good for us," Dick said. "If we were in Tennessee, we'd be out of luck."
Virginia has just enough sun to grow hops, said Dick. It’s also easier to grow hops at higher latitudes because the crop needs heavy sunlight.
Despite the small number of growers in Virginia, there is a demand for the crop. "A lot of the microbrewers, they’re looking to get locally-produced, locally-sourced, sustainably-produced products and that just does not exist [in this area]," he told us.
The hops add a bitter or citrus flavor to beer that balances out malt or sweetness. "The brewers will add this to the boil portion of the beer," he said.
Dick has about 480 hops plants on his farm. He planted them this past spring and about 320 of the plants took off.
He's giving the first crop to local microbrewers for free, he said, just in time for fall. "It takes about a month to brew and then boom, you're in October, so that Oktoberfest really is associated with those fresh-hopped, wet-hopped beers," Dick said.
He expects next year’s crop to be even larger. "We're excited about next year, although it’s going to be a lot of work," Dick said. "There’ll be 20 times more plants and cones as compared to right now."
It takes about four years for the crop to fully mature, he said. The plants grow back every year.
He paid about $15,000 in upfront costs and will have to make his own equipment. "One of the lacks we have is having small-scale production equipment," he said. "I'm going to have to basically engineer my own harvesting and drying equipment."
It takes more than just hardware, he said. "A lot of it is getting your hands dirty and figuring it out yourself," Dick said.
Dick's hops are currently being used by the Wolf Hills Brewing Company in Abingdon, Va.