Interview – Richard Smith, Florida Hops

The national image of Florida agriculture has long been relegated to the sole image of citrus, maybe some corn or sugar cane thrown in. In reality, the Sunshine State grows a wide variety of crops, including peanuts, tomatoes, watermelons, and much more.

One more crop is starting to show up in Florida’s farms: hops.

Much research and development is being done to acclimate this traditionally temperate climate plant to Florida’s tropical and subtropical weather. One such outfit is Florida Hops, and it’s Founder & CEO, Richard Smith.

I recently spoke to Richard concerning hop varietals, Florida sunshine, and the future of Florida hop growing.

What is Florida Hops and what all do you offer?

Florida Hops, LLC, established in 2016, is a registered Florida plant nursery that provides fully rooted, field ready starter plants for commercial growers and homeowners, as well as fresh and wet hops for craft breweries and homebrewers, and hopyard consultation for those interested in tapping into Florida’s growing craft beer market in a unique way. We are dedicated to the growth and development of this crop through proven scientific methods and research to expand opportunities for Florida’s agriculture communities.

What is your agriculture background?

I have worked as a horticulturist studying the art and science of plant production for nearly a decade, starting as a volunteer with Orange County Master Gardeners working with vegetable crops, which complimented my own backyard production of fresh vegetables and leafy greens. From there I became a licensed horticulturist through the Florida Nursery Growers and Landscape Association (FNGLA). In an effort to gain more insight into plant production, I returned to school and enrolled as a student at the University of Florida, based at the Mid-Florida Research and Education in Apopka, Florida. There I was introduced to the craft beer world, which naturally sparked an interest into learning more about beer ingredients.

How did you get involved in hop farming?

Hops really got my attention because I had always heard that you couldn’t grow the plant in our state. So, as a scholarship opportunity presented itself for me to conduct thesis work, I was able to obtain 60 plants in 4 different varieties to study in an open-sided greenhouse. The question I hoped to answer was “What does it mean we can’t grow hops in Florida? How do you quantify that?” That work would be the first scientific research of hop production in Florida. It proved that not only could we grow hops in Florida, though our yields were highly reduced, our production methods and environment also had an impact on hop flavor and aroma, meaning we had an entirely different profile in the same hops from traditional production regions. That work is foundational in what we are seeing today. It would also help me graduate Summa Cum Laude, as well as accept a job offer as a Biological Scientist with the University. From there I was able to work more in-depth with the plant and better understand its physiological response to various inputs and treatment in experiments ranging from hydroponic production, seed germination treatments, photoperiod manipulation, to the evaluation of the impact of cultural practices on secondary metabolites. Much of that work remains unpublished as I took advantage of an opportunity to expand my role at Florida Hops, LLC.

What aspects of hops were particularly difficult to acclimate to Florida?

Hops are a difficult plant to grow in any environment, let alone Florida. In other environments, (fungi) Downy and Powdery Mildews are of significant importance as they can, and often do, severely impact vigor, yield, production, and ultimately, profitability. Being that hop production in Florida is so young, we have yet to see those diseases rise to a dangerous threat level. However, we are constantly on the lookout for any signs of these diseases. Humidity plays a role in the spread of these diseases and, as we all know, or at least have heard, Florida is a very humid place. Scouting for these diseases early and often is a particularly important activity here at Florida Hops.

Are there any other Florida-specific problems facing hop growing, other than weather?

Sufficient growth from hop plants requires longer exposure to light that Florida’s climate provides. During our Spring to Summer production period, we reach a maximum number of daylight hours near 13.5 hrs/day. Hops need near 15 to 17 hours to put on the necessary vegetative growth to support higher yields. Without reaching the minimum number of light hours, hops grown in Florida are often triggered to flower early, when the plant is just 10 to 13 feet long, reducing yield and quality of production. Luckily, hops were one of the first plants to be studied for their response to light manipulation. We learned that if we can expose the plant to additional lighting, enough to reach the required photoperiod to keep the plant in vegetative growth, then it is possible to not only increase the growth of the plant but also increase yield and cone quality. With photoperiod manipulation, we are able to grow larger, more robust plants that, in turn, increased yield nearly eightfold over previous attempts, and we are also able to add an additional harvest. So right now, there are incredible gains happening in Florida hop production.

Another difficult part of hop production in Florida is working with dormancy (a period where growth and development are temporarily stopped). Research from the USDA indicated dormancy may not be as significant and productivity may not be as hampered as we have initially thought. Their work involved placing pot-grown hop plants in cold storage for about 6 weeks and comparing plant growth and yield to plants that were exposed to a typical mild Florida winter. However, one factor that cold temperatures may provide some benefit is dealing with pests, such as parasitic microscopic worms called nematodes. Hops are very familiar with attacks from nematodes, and much of the existing literature states that the plant can outgrow their impact, thus minimizing their concern. Also, while the plant is in the dormancy phase, conditions for nematode proliferation are nonexistent as much of ground is frozen under snow in traditional production areas. However in Florida, temperatures rarely ever get low enough to freeze the ground and provide a meaningful impact on nematode activity. The conditions in Florida’s winter causes the hop plant to slow its growth, but never truly enter in a full dormancy. And without the ability to outgrow the nematode, their roots become susceptible to attack and damage by these soil-borne pests. With reduced ability to acquire and provide nutrients to other parts, nematode-infested hop plants usually are stunted, yellow, unable to be productive.

It is vital that a grower become very familiar with this crop and take every opportunity to educate themselves on hop production, different growth phases, post-harvest activities, sell and use of hops, and on a higher level, developing a sense for hop varieties. Many Floridians have never seen a hop plant before and so there are always opportunities to educate someone about this beautiful component to beer.

What is the general process of setting up a hop farm?

Hopyards begin by first evaluating environmental conditions, such as average temperatures, lighting conditions, and soil environment. The benefit with production is that if one of those factors are not within the recommended ranges, we can simply manipulate the environment. For example, if a particular site lacks the proper conditions for hop production in the soil environment, we will just add amendments to improve that soil condition. Secondly is understanding, designing, and building a trellis system. This is the structure that provides support for the hop plants. Sometimes people want to take shortcuts and try to save money and either install a system themselves, cut out some of the necessary materials, or both. Having a well built and properly maintained trellis system is one of the most important factors that go into hop production, as it needs to be designed to provide everything the crop needs with minimal improvements. Lastly is cultivar selection. Not all hops can be produced under the same conditions, and it important for a grower to know which similar hops he or she can produce. For example, some hops have a lower watering requirement and when they are grown with plants that have a higher need, they begin to suffer. Understanding the impact of choice of hop varieties to grow is important.

What varietals are you currently growing?

Currently, Cascade is by far the hop with the largest acreage. Comet, Chinook, Columbus, Zeus, Cashmere, Triple Pearl, Nugget, Williamete and Sorachi Ace are quickly gaining in popularity as both private and public research has indicated them to be good producers. Right now, Comet is my favorite hop. It’s an older variety, being released by the USDA in the 70’s, and because it packs such a great citrusy aroma, it’s been growing in popularity as a close comparison to, and often a replacement of, Citra.

Do you see any new varietals coming out of Florida any time soon?

I believe in order for Florida to become competitive on the national and global hop market, it would require the development of a hop variety that is better suited to the conditions of our environment. That work takes time. At Florida Hops, though, we’ve been working on hop breeding for the past year and have some unnamed varieties we are looking forward to evaluating for production and quality. This is a process that can take up to 8 years before a new variety is released. However, with growing conditions on our side, we’re hoping to greatly shorten that time period and release a new Florida born variety through traditional production techniques by 2020.

What breweries have you worked with?

Through our clients such as Central Florida Hops in Zellwood, we have had the luxury of building great relationships with breweries all over the state. It would be too numerous to name them all, but a few that stand out are Redlight Redlight in Winter Park, Tactical Brewing Company in Orlando, HourGlass Brewing Company in Longwood, Wops Hops in Sanford, Dissent Brewing Company in St. Petersburg, Sailfish Brewing Company in Ft. Pierce, Infinite Ale Works in Ocala, Wolf Branch Brewing in Eustis, and likely many more as Florida Hops grows. As a biological scientist at the University of Florida, hops that were grown under my care were used by Wicked Barley in Jacksonville, Mastry’s in St. Petersburg, Ten10 Brewing Company in Orlando, and notably Apopka Hop Pale Ale from First Magnitude Brewing in Gainesville, the first beer with the Fresh From Florida label. It was made with over 3 pounds of freshly dried hops from 6 varieties of plants that were under my purview.

We have also worked with businesses outside of the brewing community, such as Ligature Coffee in Winter Park, Orlando-based Orlando City Kombucha and Yaupon Brothers Tea, and Bloom By Nadine, a florist based in Windermere that used Florida grown hops in bouquets and boutonnieres for weddings. Our goal is to example the many different markets, besides craft beer, that hops can be used. The next step is working with locally made seasonings that include hops, as well as ice creams.

Is it possible for people to grow hops at home?

Absolutely! For anyone brewing their own beer, fresh and wet hopped beers offer entrance into an entirely different world of aroma, as those volatiles that often are lost in the brewing process and in the processing of hops are virtually unharmed. They are not difficult to grow if you start with the proper plant material. With every plant sold, we offer access to ask any question about growing hops you could imagine. Our desire is to not only challenge growers, but to also guide them successfully from vine to brew. We list our available plants at http://www.floridahopx.com and offer free in-state shipping with each purchase. We are continually increasing the number of products we are working with. Each product on the site is one that I have personally used to grow hops and have found great success.

What can we expect to see in the future for hops farming in Florida?

First, we will see the expansion of hopyards throughout the state and throughout the Southeastern US. And, as growers become more experienced with production and research helps to develop knowledge around the crop in our environment, we will see the increase of yields on current varieties. We’ll then go beyond making wet hopped pale ales into wet hopped Saisons, India Pale Lagers, and even Sour beers. We’ll also see the expansion of hops into new markets such as coffee, tea, and seasoning for food products like meats and ice cream. I also see hopyards becoming places to gather for festivals that celebrate hops, to host weddings, and even backgrounds for Instagram photos. But the most important development for the future of hop production in Florida is the establishment of the first hop varietal that is bred and born in Florida. Through all of this, we are going to make outstanding impacts to the world of craft beer.

Drink Florida Craft,
Dave
@floridabeerblog
floridabeerblog@gmail.com
Order the official “Drink Florida Craft” shirt from Florida Beer Blog today.
Use code FLABEERGUY18 for 10% off!

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