ASK THE HORT AGENT
Question Will hops be a new cash crop for North Carolina?
Answer The short answer is no. Interestingly, hop (Humulus lupulus) is in the same family (Cannabaceae) as North Carolina’s most infamous cash crop – Cannabis sativa aka marijuana.
Hop (or hops) is a twining perennial vine. Its fruiting structure is used to add aroma and a bitter taste in the production of beer. It also serves as a natural preservative and contributes to beer’s psychoactive effects. While it has been grown all over the world, it has a history of “hopping” around.
Captive Jews wrote about hop beverages in Babylon before 200 AD. They called this primitive beer a “strong drink made from hops” (sicera ex luplis confectam). It must have been pretty strong, because they believed it cured leprosy. The Romans took the cultivation of hops to Europe for use as a vegetable.
Between 700 and 1100 AD the Germans moved the status of hops from a vegetable to an ingredient of beer. From Germany to Holland to England, Europeans began to acquire the taste of this bitter ingredient.
Prior to hops, beer was flavored with herbs and spices. Myrtle, yarrow, rosemary and wormwood were used to brew a drink called gruit. The primary problem with gruit was preservation. The alcohol content was not high enough to preserve the brew, and the herbs did nothing to keep it from going bad. By the 1200s the traditional gruit had taken a bitter turn toward the preserving flavor of hops. However, the transition was not easy. According to the New World Guide to Beer, “wherever hopped beer was introduced, it was met with suspicion and hostility from established brewers and those whose livelihood depended upon the cultivation and sale of other plants used in brewing.”
The exception to this rule was America. Colonists brought their taste for hopped brew to the New World. By the 1800s, Americans were growing their own hops. Prior to the Civil War, New York was king of hop production. While hop cultivation moved west with frontiersmen, New York held its status until Prohibition.
After Prohibition, hops production reemerged in Washington state where a new king was crowned. Today, 75% of American hop is grown in the Yakima Valley of Washington. The United States is second only to Germany in worldwide hop production.
Insects and diseases caused hop production to move from east to west coast. Throughout history, these pests have contributed to the continuous swings from surplus to shortage. Diseases like downy mildew, powdery mildew and Verticillium wilt are less threatening in the northwest.
Hops may play a future role in North Carolina’s economy, but they will be in the form of micro breweries instead of fields. If you’re hopped up on hop history, visit http://www.americanhopmuseum.org/home.htm If you simply need a brew taster, contact me at 910-893-7533 or email me at email@example.com
By the way, gruit is making a comeback. It is now called wine coolers or hard lemonade.
Gary L. Pierce
Horticulture Extension AgentHarnett County