We are living in an imperial world, and (dare I say it) I am an imperial man. When it comes to beer, bring on the hops. If it's a pale, make it a double India. And when I die, bury me in a coffin full of Cascades, Chinooks, and Brewer's Golds. If the cannibal corpse apocalypse comes, at least I'll be flavorful.
Maybe that's taking it too far. I love a good wheat beer as much as the next guy, but when it comes to my first pint of the day, it's pale time, and that means "hops."
With the microbrew revolution finally gaining steam in the Lowcountry (four breweries = a good start), City Paper reasoned that someone out there must be growing their own hops. These tiny flower clusters are so integral to our beer's flavor, imparting each sip with bitter tang, that surely a few local brewers would be cultivating choice varietals.
Finding local hops proved harder than we thought, but not impossible. COAST Brewing's David Merritt was likely one of the first to attempt to grow them over five years during his stint as brewmaster at Palmetto. Despite harvesting plenty of hop "cones," the frustration of trial-and-error growing led to the bines' eventual demise without ever producing anything particularly pungent (Yes, "bine." Hops are a climbing plant that grow in a helix, called a bine. Vines are different — they attach themselves with tendrils or suckers.)
After Germany, the U.S. grows more hops than anywhere else in the world, but most of that crop hails from the rainy Pacific Northwest. Still, the wet climate in that region may lead to a misconception about what constitutes good conditions for hops.
"One of my confusions when I first started was that I thought you had to have cool and wet conditions," says Jim Dobbins, who has successfully grown hops on Wadmalaw Island over the last two years. "It actually has to do with the length of the day. Oregon and Washington get three or four more hours of daylight in the growing season. That opened my eyes."
Dobbins began his bines along the side of his house, realizing over time that the restricted sunlight and close quarters encouraged powdery mildew. He responded by building a series of 16-feet-high, 70-feet-long trellises to suspend the bines and spread them out. His hops varieties found mixed success. Chinook and Nugget hops failed to produce significant cones, but the Cascade hops (if you're a fan of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, you're familiar with these) thrived. That harvest even made its way into Holy City Brewing's recent Shiftee, an 8.5 percent Golden Ale.
"It was Jim's first crop, so they didn't really change the beer too drastically," says Holy City's Chris Brown. "It usually takes a couple of crops before they're really pungent enough to utilize to the best that they can be."
Holy City did hang a wreath of Dobbins' hops at the brewery, and they're anxiously awaiting his second harvest with hopes of even more flavor.
Across the Ravenel Bridge, Westbrook Brewing's brick walls are adorned with thriving bines as well. Owners Edward and Morgan Westbrook began the plants as rhizomes (the transplanted stem of a hop plant that grows into a bine) at their home before transplanting them to the brewery. On International IPA Day last April, they harvested cones straight from the bine, adding them fresh to the boil in a process called "wet hopping."
The Westbrooks use their hops in their own recipes, but also appreciate the value of educating visitors on how one of beer's key ingredients actually grows. They've even let a wedding planner pick a few for bouquets.
Two of the most knowledgeable hop growers in town may be Ben and Aaron Lucas, brothers who now both work at Closed for Business on King Street. For four years, the pair cultivated nine different varietals in their Park Circle backyard before moving. With trellises stretching 24 feet tall, the brothers utilized raised, angled beds to control rainwater runoff. They carefully monitored their soil chemistry, planting marigold flowers at the bines' base to deter aphids.
One of the biggest challenges of our hot, humid climate, Aaron says, is monitoring the plants for harvest. A cone that looks a day away from picking could be dry by the afternoon if the humidity drops.
"In this climate, you have to be really on top of things. We had good yields," he says, adding that one of their best harvests was Magnum hops, a relatively new hybrid developed in 1980 in Germany. "Hops are kind of like grapes. They take about five years for a full harvest, and we were just getting to that point when we had to pull them to move downtown."
Chef Sean Brock has occasionally used the Lucas brothers' hops in dishes at McCrady's, while others have made their way into homebrews, including a habañero stout earlier this year. They're keeping their best varieties alive in pots on a porch, awaiting another move this spring when they can restart their bines. Eventually, Aaron says, they'd like to open up their own brewery.
By the time that materializes, there may be even more sources of local hops. At Dirthugger Farms on James Island, farmer Meg Moore recently started a few rhizomes in her walk-in cooler. She's building trellising this winter using old telephone poles with hopes of getting bines growing by spring.
"Asheville is really about the furthest south that hops are recommended to grow, but I feel like it can be done," says Moore. "We're using an open field with plenty of air circulation, choosing heat-tolerant varieties, and planting them farther apart than people usually recommend."
Moore plans to plant perennial herbs in the beds with the hops, with hopes of influencing their flavor. If the cones don't mature, she'll dig out the rhizomes and offer them to her CSA customers as edible hop asparagus or explore their medicinal properties.
"I think by the second year I'll get a good sense of how healthy they are," says Moore. "I would love to have a totally local beer. I'm stubborn to a fault, so I'm going for it."
Hops are a tough plant to grow in the coastal Southeast, but folks like Jim Dobbins and the Lucas brothers prove it can be done. For the sake of every imperial man (and woman) out there, let's raise a pint in hopes they all continue to succeed.