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NC Brewers Exchange Resources, Hopes for Hops

By Jeremy Summers, NCBiotech Writer

Attendees meet at Highland Brewing Company.

If you’ve been to Asheville in recent years, you’ve noticed there’s something brewing in the mountains of North Carolina.

Beer has become a major industry in the area and there is much room for growth of this ancient form of biotechnology. That’s why brewers from the western part of the state gathered at Highland Brewing Company in Asheville recently for the N.C. Craft Beverage Regional Exchange Group meeting. .

The event was organized by Appalachian State University’s Fermentation Science program and co-sponsored by the Western Regional Office of the North Carolina Biotechnology Center.

Call it 'Beer City'

There are now 58 craft breweries in North Carolina , many of them in Asheville. The city has cultivated its reputation as “Beer City” by winning the Beer City USA Today poll three consecutive years.

This identity has been confirmed by industry giants Sierra Nevada and New Belgium, the second- and third- largest craft breweries in the country, respectively.Both recently announced plans to build breweries in the area. 

Sierra Nevada is building a 300,000-barrel-capacity brewery in Mills River, just south of Asheville.It’s expected to be open by 2014. New Belgium’s 400,000-barrel brewery will open in Asheville’s River Arts District in 2015.

Area hop industry growing

As expansion of the craft brewing industry in the state continues, many breweries have expressed interest in buying locally grown hops, particularly for specialty brews. Accordingly, regional farmers have looked to capitalize on this opportunity

Many hop producers in the state have only recently begun growing, however, and there is still a process of trial and error underway. The goal of this latest meeting was to exchange resources and information that would help farmers avoid costly errors.

The meeting featured a presentation from Jeanine Davis, Ph.D., with the N.C. State Hops Project. Davis oversees a research hops yard in Mills River, which experiments with different methods for growing the flowering plant used primarily to offset sweetness in beers. The purpose of this project, she explained, is to improve the growing process so that farmers planting hops can have some examples of what works and what should be avoided.

Davis explained that the growth of the industry in the state is exciting, but much work still needs to be done to build and sustain profitability. Some of the keys to this growth are lowering operating and supply costs, which can be done through collaboration.

“It’s really important, especially with these new breweries coming, for us to build these partnerships,” said Davis. “The more we can work together as an industry in this state, the more we can accomplish.” Davis noted that farmers in the state have several resources at their disposal.

One such resource is the N.C. Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services, which offers free soil testing and analysis.

“Everything they have in California, you have here in North Carolina, with less traffic and less people,” said Michael Jones, a fermentation specialist with Scott Labs.

Dr. Seth Cohen, of Appalachian State University, gives a presentation.

Brewing builds on the past

North Carolina sits at the very edge of the climate range that allows for growing hops. The photoperiod, or the amount of light that crops are exposed to in a day, is just long enough to sustain the crop, which is why hops production in the state has a long history.

In the 1800s, North Carolina was one of several East Coast hubs for hops production. The industry was driven out of the state after the powdery and downy types of mildew compromised the plants and ruined much of the production.

The current generation of farmers has learned from the past. Hops farmers now prune the bottom few feet of the plant to allow air to disperse the humidity that breeds mildew.

Insects still pose a threat, however. Japanese beetles, spider mites and comma butterflies, also known as “hop butterflies”, can compromise crop production. Since many insecticides and other chemical treatments would ruin the hops, farmers are forced to find more creative methods for ridding their crops of these insects.  One such method is releasing predatory insects that consume the threatening insects without damaging the plants themselves.

Small-scale craft embraces big

Home brewing has been popular in North Carolina for hundreds of years. The interest in home brewing has grown with the brewing industry in the western part of the state.

The principles involved in home brewing are the same as those in place at the larger craft breweries. “It’s all a matter of scaling,” says Sean O’Connell, head of microbiology at Western Carolina University, and an avid home brewer.

O’Connell explains that larger companies like Sierra Nevada and New Belgium setting up operations in Asheville is a good thing, even to the smaller breweries that will be in competition with them. “The technical competence of these bigger companies will benefit the smaller breweries,” said O’Connell, who admitted initial concern for the impact on the local breweries. 

“These companies chose Asheville for a reason,” he explained, pointing out the appeal of Asheville’s unique geographic and cultural combination. “Their plans fit into the Asheville culture so well,” he added.

Collaboration balances competition

Most smaller companies would feel threatened with two industry giants setting up shop in town, but most of Asheville’s local breweries are excited about the attention the local industry is receiving.

Pete Langheinrich, of Asheville Pizza & Brewing Company, pours a beer for a patron.

“At first, I think there was some perceived apprehension, but then we all realized these companies were going to put Asheville breweries on the map,” said Pete Langheinrich, who is an assistant brewer at Asheville Pizza & Brewing Company.

Asheville Pizza & Brewing, like many of the breweries in Asheville, produces beer on a much smaller scale than a company like New Belgium, and that distinction should keep them viable even when these companies become operational. Langheinrich explained that smaller breweries can experiment with more creative, “funky” flavor profiles which give them a unique advantage in the market. But, he reiterated that the growth of the industry in the region is a great thing for Asheville and the rest of the state.

“The people I’ve met from those companies are all great people, so it should really confirm Asheville’s ‘Beer City, USA’ reputation.”