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YORK COUNTY --
If any Tom, Dick or Harry can grow hops, it is these three friends in York County.
Tom is Jerry Vitale, a retired salesman from New York who once sold concrete. He’s also the person who introduced his friends to hops after growing a few for home decoration. He also brings beer-making background, once an investor in the Brooklyn Brewery.
Dick is Jim McDaniel, a York County farm boy with a degree in agriculture from Clemson. He works for the Eagle Building Center in Clover in outside sales when he isn’t running the family farm.
Harry is Fritz Gusmer, owner of Windy Hill Orchard. His dad was once a brewmaster and an officer with the American Brewmasters Association. Gusmer grows apples, makes ciders and loves to tinker.
The three are doing what experts say is difficult: growing hops in the Carolinas.
Almost all of the hops grown in the U.S. comes from Washington or Oregon. Most of the hops goes to the brewing industry. Hops has different levels of bitterness and aroma that give beers their distinctive tastes. Hops also can be used in a herbal tea to combat anxiety.
Hops are a photosensitive plant and typically get about 16 hours of sunlight, says Robert Austin of the Department of Soil Science at North Carolina State. In the Carolinas, there is about 13 1/2 hours of sunlight.
The Carolinas also have an earlier growing season, which results in the hops not fully developing, he said.
That means potential yields are drastically less than what’s produced in the northwest, Austin said.
“It’s a difficult crop to make money with,” Austin said. “You need to have enough size so you can get to the point of mechanical harvesting.”
Harvesting an acre of hops by hand takes more than 300 hours, he said.
Vitale, McDaniel and Gusmer are not deterred. They are optimistic hops can be a money-making crop, particularly with a pound of hops retailing for $20 and an acre of hops producing between 15,000 and 16,000 pounds.
“If you plant it, it will grow,” Gusmer said. “The question is what grows best, what can be done efficiently and profitably?”
The trio is growing hops in a slow and scientific way. Their hops shares a field with pumpkins and hay.
The field is off the main road, accessible by a twisty dirt path. They’ve told the curious they’ve planted pole beans.
They constructed a large A-frame structure of poles and baling twine to grow the hops.
Hops, if left on the ground, will die. They have to be “trained” to climb the twine. Once trained, the hops’ bines – they have stiff hairs that help them climb – grow quickly, as much as 20 feet in a season.
Vitale checks the hops in the morning, weeding the patch for about an hour before doing other chores. McDaniel monitors the hops’ growth, and Gusmer provides the equipment to make sure the hops are watered or sprayed as needed.
They planted seven varieties to determine which hops is best suited for the area:
• Cascade, which has moderate bitterness.
• Fuggle, which dates to 1861 and is used in English ales.
• Mount Hood, which has a spicy aroma and is used in lagers.
• Nugget, which has a heavy aroma and is very bitter.
• Willamette, which has a fragrant, spicy wood aroma.
• Perle, which has a minty bitterness and a pleasant aroma.
• Saaz, which has spicy bitterness and is the hops traditionally used in Pilsner beers.
They planted 100 hops rhizomes in April. Harvest time is approaching. It appears the Cascade, Mount Hood and Nugget varieties will yield the most.
They expect to harvest between 75 to 100 pounds of hops.
Gusmer hopes to use some of the hops to brew a cider. A hops cider recently won the speciality class of the Great Lakes Cider and Perry Association competition. Windy Hill Orchard has done well in the competition in the past.
The remainder of the hops are being offered to craft brewers for free.
“We want to share this information,” Vitale said.
The harvest will likely be distributed “wet,” or freshly harvested. The alternative is to dry the hops and convert it to pellets.
After the harvest, the trio will wait for feedback from brewers.
For information on hops availability, call 803-222-4980.