Haywood County hops farmer Scott Grahl is a dreamer with his feet planted firmly on the ground.
“One day a buddy of mine called and said ‘Did you know there is a worldwide hops shortage?’” Grahl said. “From then on, I’ve spent the last three years learning about this plant.”
Grahl still works 12-hour shifts in shipping at the Evergreen Packaging plant in Canton, but he spends the rest of his waking hours on his one-acre hops plantation, the seed project for a dream that one day could evolve into a regional beer festival and the transformation of local agriculture.
Hops plants are essential for making beer, providing the essential acids that deepen its flavor profile and act as a bittering agent. North Carolina brewers mainly rely on hops produced in Washington and Oregon, but agriculture specialists believe hops could one day become a viable cash crop that could replace tobacco on small farms across the state.
Grahl and his girlfriend Stephanie Willis both come from families that farmed tobacco in Haywood County. With the help of a Tobacco Trust Fund grant aimed at converting historic tobacco farms into other means of sustainable agriculture, Grahl started Winding River Hops on one-acre of pine scrub off Thickety Road, within spitting distance of I-40.
After burning the land, Grahl added three truckloads of horse compost, two of mushroom compost and a whopping three tons of lime to bring the pH in line with what hops need to grow.
“We wanted to see how quickly we could take poor soil and turn it around,” Grahl said.
Grahl’s project isn’t the only one in Western North Carolina. He has joined experimental farmers in Madison and Buncombe counties to form the Southern Appalachian Hops Guild.
That group is relying on scientific expertise from the N.C. State Soil Science and Horticulture Departments, which have initiated their own statewide project to improve the market opportunities for North Carolina hops farmers by bettering yields and quality. Their work is funded with a grant from the Golden LEAF Foundation.
Rob Austin, one of the N.C. State scientists involved in the study, said it’s the first time anyone in North Carolina has systematically studied hops production. Austin’s crew has created its own hops yard in Raleigh as a way to try out 10 varieties of plants, but in the meantime, they are also taking regular soil and tissue samples for startup growers around the state.
If there has been a big surprise for the scientists and growers alike, it’s the amount of work required to cultivate hops.
“The amount of labor that’s involved is insane,” Austin said.
“It’s a lifestyle change,” Grahl agreed. “It really is.”
Austin has nothing but admiration for Grahl and his magic acre. The hop plants at Winding River started as rhizomes in May 2009, and now there are three varieties of hops growing in 20 rows on 18.5-foot trellises. That’s 1,320 plants now producing lupulin, the yellow grains that give hops its quality as a bittering agent.
“He’s a true pioneer,” Austin said. “Scott is leading the way in Western North Carolina.”
Grahl has plans to move his operation just down the road to a 30-acre field in Clyde. In preparation for that effort, he’s started exploring the region’s craft beer scene.
“I’ve started drinking micro brews because I like to taste the essence now,” Grahl said, who used to be a Coors Light man.
Asheville was recently named Beer City USA, and the burgeoning brew business in WNC is one impetus for the new hop growing initiative.
“Every brewery from Asheville has said, ‘If you guys will grow it, we’ll buy it,’” Grahl said.
Currently, local breweries have to buy hops from the Pacific Northwest, which has long-dominated the market.
But hops production isn’t just labor intensive in the field; it’s also expensive during processing. In the Pacific Northwest and Germany, hops producers often rely on growing collectives that pitch in to cover the costs of huge industrial dryers and the equipment to convert the dry hops into pellets, which most large-scale brewers use to make beer.
None of the growers in Western North Carolina can afford to make that kind of investment up front.
Grahl believes his immediate future as a grower relies on his ability to market his product as a locally-grown additive for wet-hopped beer, which is a seasonal item that uses recently harvested hop cones.
“I expect from the wet-hopping scene, you’ll one day have a festival in Asheville that the whole Southeast could be a part of,” Grahl said.
In the meantime, he’s working on a project close to his heart: preserving historic farmland by using it.
“We want to maintain land in agriculture that would otherwise be split up for development,” Grahl said. “We can’t stop progress but maybe we can slow down some of the negative aspects and keep what green we still have around here.”
• Winding River Hops farm is participating in a collaborative hops farm tour on July 31. The event includes two farm tours and a tour of the French Broad Brewery. $10. 828.255.5522
• To learn more about Winding River or the Southern Appalachian Hops Guild visit southernappalachianhopsguild.blogspot.com.