Hops farming on the rise in Florida

- Dozens of local beer makers stood in a Zellwood garage this week picking through long green vines; a part of the brew making process they’ve never gotten to take part in her before. 

They’re picking fresh hops. The crop is one of the newest popping up on a field in the small town. It’s part of a new operation owner Matt Roberts calls Central Florida Hops.

"We got together and wanted to bring something a little bit different,” said Roberts. "I'm a plant guy and I'm a beer guy!"

Roberts said he jumped at the chance to take on hops because it’s a chance he’s never really had before.  In fact, few in Florida have.

"Everyone just told you [that] you couldn't grow crops in Florida because of the climate,” said Roberts.

However that’s changed over the last few years. Scientists in the state like Richard Smith have challenged the notation that it couldn’t be done.  Smith, a former University of Florida biologist, said he took on the challenge of growing hops as his focus while taking classes at the school. 

"I think a lot of the challenges previously were we were thinking humidity and the lighting,” said Smith who’s now the CEO of Florida Hops and helps farms like Roberts’s to get started.

Smith said along with the lack of cooler weather, Florida’s days top out about 2 hours of sunlight short of the ideal hops growing day. So over the last five or so years, Smith and other Florida scientists have developed new growing methods to get the hops to grow in the state’s climate. Smith’s also outfitted Roberts’s farm and others with high powered lighting systems to simulate the additional daylight those plants need.

It’s working.

"We're going from a quarter pound to almost 2 pounds [of hops] on these plants,” said Smith.

The vines of Roberts’s farm now climb 16-20 feet in the air and smell like a fresh IPA if you get close enough. The hops are also finally ready to fulfill their purpose: to become beer.

Each of those local breweries picking the hops will begin brewing them into actual batches immediately. The first truly locally-grown Central Florida beers will be on tap shortly.

As for the hops business in the area: the future is brewing up well.
Roberts said, the way the hops grow, they anticipate getting two harvests per year. If this first one goes well, he plans to expand out onto more open land on the farm; hopefully reaching an acre of hops soon. Currently, Smith said, there are only around 40 acres growing state-wide.

The farm is also hosting a pick your own event for home brewers this Saturday starting at 9 a.m. You can find more information on the Central Florida Hops Facebook page.
 

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