On a research farm in southern Hillsborough County, Simon Bollin pulls a hops flower down off of a vine, crushes it, and takes a whiff.
“This one isn’t quite ripe yet, and it’s a little wet, so it smells more like green grass than it does beer,” he said. “Ideally, it could be spicy, it could be citrusy, it could be earthy, any number of things.”
Hops are to beer what grapes are to wine, and it’s the main flavor of many popular craft beers. More than 14 different strains of hops are growing on the one acre piece of farmland near Wimauma, some of it good, some of it not. Most of the strains were not mean to thrive in the heavy heat of a Florida summer.
In the U.S., hops are mainly grown in Pacific Northwest states like Washington and Oregon. But in 2015, Hillsborough County government officials noticed the Tampa Bay area was home to more than 50 breweries with more on the way.
Bollin, who manages agribusiness relations for the county, got together with two University of Florida researchers at the Gulf Coast Research and Education Center to see if local farmers could get a piece of the craft beer boom. At first they were skeptical.
“We got a $100 donation from Cigar City Brewery to buy nine hops plants that we grew in a greenhouse, just to see if it was possible,” Bollin said.
From there, the county, along with UF researchers Shinsuke Agehara and Zhanao Deng, applied for a specialty crop grant.
Three years later, 20-foot-high vines covered in hops flowers sit ready to harvest. Wooden telephone poles create the backbone of the hops farm. A rope runs from the top of one pole to the other. Twine helps the plants on the ground climb up and create a series of hops columns.
Agehara said the vines will start branching out toward each other as they mature.
“When they have full production, you will see all the vines making like a wall,” he said.
But getting to this point hasn’t been easy, Agehara added.
Florida is known for being a breeding ground for diseases that can kill plants. In their first year growing hops in the open air, all of the plants had to be destroyed because they were infected with Apple Mosaic Virus, a common ailment for hops in the Pacific Northwest.
“We have a warm and humid climate, so generally we have higher disease pressures than in other states,” Deng said.
The researchers’ biggest battle has been against the sun.
Hops plants only grow when they receive more than 15 hours of sunlight each day. Long days are common in the Pacific Northwest from May to mid-July, the typical growing season for hops.
But even though Florida is called the ‘Sunshine State,’ Tampa only gets about 13 hours of sunlight at most.
The solution for researchers was to rig up expensive LED lights to simulate longer days.
“The lights are hanged on the top wire and the lights are on from 5:30 to 11:30 p.m.,” Agehara said. “When we want them to start flowering and stop growing, we just turned them off.”
The other big challenge for researchers is figuring out what strains of hops will grow best in Florida.
Out of the 14 strains they are growing, the variety known as "Cascade" is doing best. In that regard, they've lucked out, because it’s also the most popular strain among brewers nationally.
“We didn’t expect this, because that strain was developed in Washington in the mid-1970s,” Deng said. “It was not developed to grow in Florida.”
It’s not enough for the researchers to grow hops in Florida, they also need to taste good for brewers to want them. The flavor of hops is, in part, influenced by environmental factors. Some initial testing by researchers suggest that hops grown in Florida may have more of a chemical that imparts a bitter taste, but the only way to know for sure is to brew them into a beer.
Some well-known Tampa Bay breweries such as Cigar City, 3 Daughters and Coppertail Brewing agreed to become partners on the project. They not only provide money for equipment, they provide expertise, visiting the farm and judging some of the hop strains with names like Zeus, Mosaic and Cashmere.
They are looking for qualities like how much lupulin is inside the flower. Lupulin is just a fancy name for the pollen that creates the hops taste.
Casey Hughes, the head brewer at Coppertail Brewing in Tampa, is planning to use some of the hops for a small batch beer. After testing some of the hops flowers from some of the different strains on the farm, Hughes said he likes what he’s smelling.
"Compared to last year, it's just night and day difference on how much better the hops, the cone size, the lupulin production, everything is on them,” he said. “Some of the hops out here are smelling really good."
In an industry where everything is about being local, Hughes said Florida brewers are closely watching experiments with growing hops closer to home. Hops grown in Hillsborough County could also be attractive to brewers outside of the state.
“I think everybody is always excited to see a new hop out of somewhere else and do a play on it,” he said. “That’s something I think Florida could do really well.”
Hughes said locally grown hops would save a lot of money on shipping, but he also doesn't want to alienate his main suppliers.
“We’re always going to be buying hops from the Pacific Northwest and we’re always going to be buying hops from New Zealand and Australia,” He said. “I hope to be soon always buying hops from Florida too.”
Researchers will try to harvest the hops twice this year. They want to see if they can grow hops during the fall, the off-season for farms in the Pacific Northwest. That would allow Florida to put fresh hops on the market when the rest of the country can’t, similar to how state farmers turn a profit on tomatoes and strawberries.
For now though, researchers aren’t worried about whether or not people see "Made with Hillsborough Hops" the next time they buy craft beer. They just want to prove that a plant meant to grow in the Pacific Northwest can thrive in Tampa Bay and taste good.