Locally grown hops could bring a new flavor to beer. 

Illustration by Ziqi Wang.

Suspended from massive wire poles over 20 feet tall, hop plants — the ingredient that gives beer its distinctive flavor — are essential to the success of microbreweries across the country. Though usually grown in Western states such as Oregon, Washington and Idaho, University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences professors Brian Pearson, Zhanao Deng and Shinsuke Agehara are currently researching ways to cultivate the green vine-like plants locally.

Working with a $158,000 grant from the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the project was first proposed by Hillsborough County Agribusiness Development Manager Simon Bollin in hopes of developing a local viable hops plant. Florida-grown hops are in high demand because they possess a unique, locally-infused flavor and aroma. The Brewers Association already reports that the hops industry has a $2 billion-a-year impact on Florida’s economy.

“Once the university published a press release, the phone calls and emails were nonstop,” said Dr. Brian Pearson, Assistant Professor of Environmental Horticulture, and a homebrewer himself. “People from the Panhandle to Miami have contacted us and traveled hours just to see the hops, asking for advice on cultivating them.”

Pearson, curious to discover more about potential hop growth in Florida, began pursuing the project four years ago, starting with only around five or six plants.

Hops — along with grain, yeast and water — are one of the four main ingredients used in brewing. Female hops produce the green conical flowers that are harvested, dried and then added to beer, releasing their characteristic bitter flavor when heated. Possessing a natural antibacterial property, hops act as both a flavoring agent and a preservative.

“Currently over 90 percent of our hops come from the Pacific Northwest region. Having local varieties here would be amazing,” said John Denny, founder and head brewer of Gainesville’s First Magnitude Brewery. “We’re very interested to see if they bring a whole new character to the beer.”

There are over 300 varieties of hops, and growth is currently centered in more Western states due to their long days, hot summers and mild temperatures. Florida’s humidity, soil, high number of insects and diseases — specifically downy mildew disease — create a number of complications.

“We’ve found that they can grow efficiently in Florida, but there are significant differences amongst the hop varieties, in terms of growth and production,” said Dr. Deng, a Ornamental Plant Breeding and Genetics professor at the University of Florida.

After testing numerous varieties, the researchers have sent small samples to microbreweries in the Tampa Bay area, who have already sold beers made with these local hops. Two economists recently hired by UF to research how cultivation will affect the hops market have already seen a high demand from microbreweries. However, with the current yield of the plant, researchers are still finding difficulty with their predictions.

Hops demand challenging technology: tall poles, high-tension trellis wires across the top of the plants, and intricate wires strung from the top of the plant to the ground. They also require a skilled labor force. Hop plants are a bine, a type of climbing plant, and must be hand “trained,” or coiled around small wires, eventually growing upwards as much as 20 feet high. Hop plants are most efficiently grown when the day length is 15 hours; the day length in Florida averages 13 hours, which further limits the yield of the plant.

The most evident challenge is still the lack of available knowledge. “Because there is little scientific literature on hops, there’s still so much we have yet to discover with this project,” said Pearson. “We’re hopeful to continue the scientific progress of our research and see its impact on Florida farmers.” •