by Leah Small
Virginia is quickly becoming known for its craft beer industry, and now researchers want the state’s farmers to have the monopoly on beer’s key flavoring ingredient.
Researchers at Virginia Tech, Virginia State University and North Carolina State University want to teach farmers in the southern Atlantic region how to ensure that hop plants thrive in its hot and humid climate.
Virginia researchers are also on the hunt for hops that haven’t been sown in Virginia soil, which would allow farmers to offer new, untried flavors to brewers.
VSU is leading the push for Central Virginia, with guidance from the North Carolina hops research program, established in 2010. There’s plenty of demand for Virginia hops, says Laban Rutto, an agricultural research professor at Virginia State.
“As you know, there are a lot of people who want to eat local,” he says. “They want to be able to trace the journey of food from the farm to the plate, or in this case, from the farm to the glass.”
Since 2014, Rutto has experimented with many hop varieties. For now, he aims to try his luck with 26 types, but the poles in his 1.2-acre hop yard are bare for the winter. When the weather gets warmer, he hopes to find a variety that thrives, which will first be nurtured in the university’s greenhouses.
Rutto has hit more than a few snags. So far, some hop varieties have succumbed to mold or didn’t successfully mature in the ground. But as a scientist, he’s learned from trial and error and says that vigilant weather monitoring and irrigation are key.
In fact, there is a particular hop that’s been successful in the state, but it’s saturated the market. Cascade, a fairly bitter hop, can grow well in humid conditions. Rutto says that the bitterest hops — those high in acids — mostly survive in the south Atlantic. For reference, think of the pine taste of an India pale ale.
Rutto and other researchers are looking for hops that have more essential oils than acids, which lend a smoother flavor. It’s the taste that can be found in lighter lagers, but it comes from hops that are less resilient in Virginia’s climate.
He’s betting on the Southern Brewer variety, which grows in South Africa, as the next big thing for Virginia growers. Once he grows a thriving crop, a sample will be sent to Virginia Tech labs to be tested for moisture levels, acidity and essential oil profiles. Tech researchers are doing their own growing, but because of the university’s location, Rutto says, they’re likely to come up with a variety that would do better in a more mountainous, dry region.
Post-lab comes the most telling part of the testing phase. Rutto will send a sample of the winning variety to a local brewer to see what flavor it lends to a trial batch of beer.
Michael Grant, co-owner of Garden Grove Brewery in Carytown, says that he’s willing to take part in the test brew. The former agricultural researcher at Virginia State was one of the first to grow organic wine grapes in Virginia.
Grant says that the market is ripe for something new that’s individual to Virginia.
“Crops taste unique depending on where they are grown in the world. … Dr. Rutto has the chance to grow some hops that no one has had before that taste wonderful,” Grant says. “He might just come up with something amazing.”