ORLANDO, Fla., March 19 (UPI) -- Climate change, craft brewing and local food trends are powering greater interest in a new Florida crop -- hops -- and some initial attempts to grow barley in the state.
From Gainesville to St. Petersburg to Delray Beach, breweries are trying Florida-grown hops -- a key flavor ingredient in beer. In Orlando, local hops are being used in kombucha and even nonalcoholic sparkling hops water.
"Locavores" -- people who like to eat locally grown food -- can credited for some of the interest in Florida-grown hops. But another factor is increasing crop uncertainty because of periodic drought in Western states where hops are traditionally grown, chiefly in the Yakima-Wash., area, about 140 miles southwest of Seattle.
Washington experienced severe dry periods that damaged crops in 2005 and 2015, although a leveling off of growth in craft beer sales has led to an oversupply of hops in the past year or two. Climate change also means Central Florida has had fewer freezes in the past 20 years, leading to some new farming experiments in winter.
Richard Smith of Orlando was among the first to start experimenting with local hops while he was with the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. He has since left the institute and started his own hops breeding operation.
At least two hops farms are growing his varieties of the towering, flowering vines in Central Florida, and Smith said he's working with two more new farm locations to plant the crop. So far it's only a matter of an acre or two, here and there.
"They are paying pretty high dollar for the local hops now and local beers," Smith said. "I have hops available and the sparkling water is a nice, nonalcoholic alternative."
It's not just for beer. Smith is working with Orlando City Kombucha, which brews a hops version of the fermented tea.
It also is creating a line of bottled sparkling water and other products infused with hops, which have some properties similar to cannabidiol, or CBD oil, a nonintoxicating compound found in marijuana plants.
A market for hops-flavored sparkling water is developing in California, with brands like Heineken-owned Lagunitas releasing "Hop Water" in August 2018.
The University of Florida's Mid-Florida Research and Education Center in Apopka was awarded a grant to research growing hops in 2016. The hops in that crop were first used by Gainesville brewery First Magnitude in a beer labeled Apopka Hop, according to the Orlando Sentinel.
Matthew Gemmell, brewmaster at Hourglass Brewing in Orlando, brewed a beer with Florida-grown hops and barley in 2018.
The barley came from another IFAS station in Suwanee, in north Florida, where researcher Charles Barrett believes he can find a new niche for the grain typically grown only in regions with severe winters. He's funding his research with proceeds of other projects he works on.
His first batch of Florida-grown barley was small. He said he will plant more this year -- an acre.
"Hops are getting a ton of attention. Barley is the biggest ingredient next to water. So I thought I'd do a little work on that," Barrett said. "Barley here would be harvested in the spring. I'll plant some throughout the fall and see which timing works best."
Central Florida Hops in Zellwood also is using Smith's varieties and a technique he developed to provide more lighting for the vines. They are normally grown in summer up North, where the longer days can provide 15-plus hours of sunlight.
Barrett is hoping to get enough barley growing in Florida to support a malt house. Barley is typically malted -- partially sprouted -- in large quantities to bring out the sugars and flavor for beer.
Besides hops and barley, Gemmell said Thursday Hourglass was brewing a new beer with another uniquely Florida crop -- Honeybell tangelos, a cross between tangerines and pomelos (grapefruit).
"We decided to go with the honeybells because of the flavor, which is really nice, and also because its a very unique Florida thing that a lot of other people don't know about," Gemmell said.
He also used local yeast -- basically just yeast found naturally in the air -- in a brew made over the winter. It requires cooling to 40 degrees while being open to the outside air. That only happened naturally on one night during which he was prepared to brew this past winter in Orlando.
For him, the holy grail of local Florida beers will be using hops and barley grown locally with local spring water and natural local yeast. He's hoping that might all happen next year, if Barrett's grain crop is successful.