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Hops on a vine

Hops Taking Root as Alternative Florida Crop

Researchers, farmers, brewers agree: Locally-grown flavoring ingredient of craft beer has market in Sunshine State

Efforts to grow hops in Florida, supported by Hillsborough County government and others, are gaining momentum.

Increasingly, Central Florida farmers are planting hops and harvesting the small cones that are a key ingredient in the making of craft beer, or expressing interest in doing so. Brewers are making beer with locally-grown hops, working with cones from different varieties of plants, and experimenting with production methods.

The hops research yard at Gulf Coast Research and Education Center in Balm has more than doubled in size this year. That's so University of Florida researchers can grow more types of hops and experiment with different conditions.

The goal: Produce ever-higher yields of the crop in Florida, a state not known for hops production.

That perception is beginning to change, thanks to four years of trial-and-error research by the university's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF-IFAS), and encouragement and financial support from Hillsborough County, local breweries, and others.

There have been challenges. Early on, researchers tossed out an entire shipment of plants that showed signs of disease. They installed LED lights to artificially "lengthen" daylight hours to accommodate growth of the cones. And they tried various ways to cope with Florida's heat, rain, and humidity.

Now, it's clear hops can grow in Florida. But there's more work to do. Different types of hops are used to brew various beers. Can those plants thrive here? And, what configurations of plant supports - cables, twine, etc. - provide the most sunlight, enabling farmers to maximize the land they devote to growing hops?

Strawberries
Researchers run hop plants through a harvesting machine to collect the thimble-sized cones.

A new 1.6-acre addition to the existing .8-acre hops yard will be used to explore these, and other, questions.

Currently, the most convenient way for craft brewers to make their popular product is to use dry hops, culled from plants grown mostly in the Pacific Northwest. Fresh hops traditionally has been hard, and expensive, to come by in Florida. The researchers and their sponsors hope to change that.

It's even possible that hops farming in Florida has advantages. Warm weather throughout the year might allow two annual harvests, rather than one. And manipulation of the day-lengthening LED lights allows farmers to time the flowering of their hops plants, which produces the coveted cones.

At a recent tour of the Gulf Coast hops yard, Central Florida farmers and brewers mingled with University of Florida agricultural agents from posts throughout the state. Word of the researchers' success in Balm is spreading.

"We're trying to help create a market," says Jack Rechcigl, director of the Gulf Coast Research and Education Center. "I think we're getting close to figuring it out."

Top photo: Hop plants reach toward the sky at Gulf Coast Research and Education Center.

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