Hops: A specialty crop rising to new heights

Hops: A specialty crop rising to new heights

Hops field
University associate professor Stacy Adams is studying the potential of hops as a specialty crop.

Americans have long loved their beer, and a growing number of beer drinkers, particularly millennials, are quenching their thirst with craft beers.

Millennials, people born in the 1980s and 1990s, are interested in social dining experiences that often feature locally sourced foods, and craft beers fit well with that, said Stacy Adams, associate professor of practice in the Department of Agronomy and Horticulture at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln.

It's a totally different cropping system, and it's a lot more labor intensive than traditional field crops. You have to understand the end result before beginning to grow them. Stacy Adams

Accompanying the increased interest in microbrews is an increased interest in growing hops, a necessary ingredient in beer. Adams is researching the potential of hops as a specialty crop in Nebraska.

The harvested female flowers, called cones, grow on bines, lush plants that climb from their shoots by growing in a helix on ropes on heavy-duty cable trellises that can be suspended 12 to 20 feet aboveground. The cones have lupulin glands, which contain alpha and beta acids and essential oils that provide the bittering and unique flavors for beer. Hops also are used in the floral industry and in homeopathic medicine.

If the plants are successfully established and grown using best management practices, they can produce hops for more than 50 years, but growing them requires expertise because this crop is unique in its growth, cultivation, harvest and post-harvest handling. It also requires a significant financial investment, Adams said.

Stacy Adams studying hops crop"It's a totally different cropping system, and it's a lot more labor intensive than traditional field crops,” he said, “and you have to understand the end result before beginning to grow them.”

With the help of a grant, Adams has grown and evaluated eight hops cultivars across the state. The test plots are on the university’s East Campus and at Sutton, Norfolk and Scottsbluff. His goal is to determine how the varied growing conditions across the state affect the hops and which cultivars are most likely to be successful.

According to Adams, several potential problems can affect a hops harvest, including:

  • Nebraska’s sometimes volatile weather, particularly wind and drought
  • Pests, such as spider mites and caterpillars
  • Diseases, such as downy mildew and alternaria cone disorder
  • Access to the specialized harvesting equipment

What his research has found so far is that some cultivars of hops grow well in Nebraska and could be a viable, high- value specialty crop, but more research is needed.

“I am passionate about finding specialty crops that are not tied to commodity prices, which could provide income for rural families so they can live where they want to live in rural America,” he said.